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Bachmann gains while Palin sits

Updated: July 18, 2011 2:08AM

Sarah Palin must wake up in the middle of the night sweating bullets, sheets scrounged up over her head. She must be haunted by the specter of U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann traipsing through the snowy Iowa cornfields on her way to a Republican caucus victory in next winter’s presidential primary sweepstakes.

What a difference one debate and a few campaign gaffes can make. My husband pooh-poohed it, but I watched the recent Republican debate anyway.

Despite my feminist pedigree, I had low expectations for Bachmann. Until then, the Minnesota Tea Partier had been defined by a series of gaffes. I had written her off as an intellectual lightweight and opportunist. She seemed bound for a Palinesque turn on the debate stage, destined to be blown away by “front-runners” like Mitt Romney and perennial bloviators like Newt Gingrich.

But I have to say it — girlfriend more than held her own that night in New Hampshire. Since that June 13 debate, Bachmann has continued to impress, positioning herself as an independent-minded fresh face. She stands out from the stiffs. (I can identify with a woman of any political stripe who can face down the blowhards).

Meanwhile, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has been hustling so hard to be “the outsider,” that she has conceded the floor to Bachmann. While Palin has been tooling around the campaign hustings on a motorcycle, Bachmann quietly has been making hay in Iowa.

A recent poll of 600 likely Republican Iowa caucus voters gave Bachmann first place, with 21 percent. She bested Romney, who took 18 percent.

A few months ago, Bachmann was polling in the single digits. The American Research Group poll, taken July 5 to 11, put Texas Congressman Ron Paul at 14 percent. Palin, the 2008 vice-presidential nominee, placed fourth with 11 percent.

Bachmann, born and raised in the Hawkeye State, is well-positioned to capture the Iowa caucus, a bellwether plum in the cutthroat 2012 presidential sweepstakes.

So Palin is gnashing her teeth in the wee hours. She has been sitting on the sidelines, pretending to hover above the political fray. Sometimes, that works. Sometimes, it’s a big mistake.

There are a lot of people vying for the Tea Party mantle. Palin, a first-term governor, quit to become a TV star and make the big bucks. She has simultaneously risen to prominence and sunk into ignominy.

Last week, the Fox News commentator told her network she would decide on a presidential bid by late summer. If she does run, she says, she would offer herself to the nation “in the name of service.”

Can the nation stomach the Palin brand of “service?” The people of Alaska are quite familiar with her constancy and commitment.

If Palin does make a play, she will shake up the Republican lineup. She will enter with characteristic flash and fanfare, soaking up copious amounts of free media in the slow-news dog days.

That’s bad for other Tea Party darlings such as Bachmann, Georgia businessman Herman Cain and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

That’s good for Romney, who just announced he has already raised $18 million in the last three months.

Sarah Palin, beware. In politics, outsiders need an exogenous event to bring them in from the cold. For Pat “Accidental Governor” Quinn, it was the Blagojevich demise. Barack Obama won the presidency on an economy in free fall.

Maybe a moose will get loose and Palin can bag it.

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