BLUFFTON, S.C. -- Laura Sterling had never voted before 2008, much less been a political activist.
But Friday night she was one of three self-described "little South Carolina moms" hosting a $175-per-couple reception for Michele Bachmann, the Minnesota firebrand congresswoman who is rapidly becoming the adopted favorite of many conservatives in the Palmetto State.
Her latest visit, including a Monday Tea Party rally at the State Capitol in Columbia, is part of an effort to set up the possibility of strong showings in the early presidential nominating contests of her native Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. That trifecta would force the GOP establishment to take Bachmann seriously in 2012, or at least move its message to the right.
South Carolina could be a special prize -- it's voted for every Republican to win the party's presidential nomination since Ronald Reagan.
"That makes this a very important place to be," said former South Carolina GOP party chief Henry McMaster. Right now, McMaster and other state party leaders don't see a clear favorite, throwing the race wide open in a state that just elected Gov. Nikki Haley, an outsider who ran with the support of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
'Our way of life'
She is by no means the only conservative angling to put South Carolina in her column. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who is expected to make his presidential bid official soon, also has been spending time here, including a visit last month to an Aiken Republican Club luncheon. But Friday afternoon, while Republicans in the U.S. House were passing a long-range plan to cut $6 trillion in federal spending, the buzz on WAGP, Beaufort's Christian radio station known as the Light, was all about Bachmann rather than the austerity plan's author, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.
Interviewed at length about her opposition to federal funding for Planned Parenthood, Bachmann accused liberals of seeking to undermine "our way of life." She also assured listeners that, in the end, "it's all about prayer."
Straw polls in the state show Bachmann has plenty of work to do to win over South Carolinians. She placed fifth in a Charleston County GOP straw poll on Friday and in the single digits in a Lexington County straw poll on Saturday.
But locals say that even with her Minnesota accent, Bachmann can touch Southern sensibilities.
"When you talk to a conservative about family and finances, and the moral issues they worry about with their kids, you suddenly don't see state lines," said Ann Ubelis, cofounder and webmaster of the Beaufort Tea Party. Ubelis interviewed Bachmann Saturday morning on "Southern Sense Blog Talk Radio," part of an Internet radio network streamed live from a capacity-crowd Tea Party gathering at the Golden Corral restaurant. Bachmann and the $7.89 breakfast buffet drew plenty of white-haired retirees from nearby Hilton Head Island.
Bachmann supporters say they find a freshness in the ideological purity that has sometimes puts Bachmann at odds with more compromise-minded GOP leaders in Congress.
"When she's speaking, I understand what she's saying," said Kimberly Tatro, who owns a marketing company in Bluffton. "She's not evasive. She's straight and to the point. I know where she stands.''
Tatro's gated home in this historic river town known as the cradle of Southern secession was the site of the elegant "low country shindig" on Bachmann's behalf Friday.
While the $175 cover charge for entry to the "low country boil" of shrimp, blue crab, corn on the cob, sweet potatoes and sausage went to benefit the Minnesotan, it also served to limit attendance to "the pure of heart," in the words of co-hostess Lauren Martel.
Martel, Tatro and Sterling, energized to oppose Obama administration policies that Martel summed up as "centrally-planned everything," represent an unabashed social and fiscal conservative movement eager to add to the gains Republicans made in the 2010 elections.
Once too busy running her own consulting business to vote, Sterling was eager to devote herself to helping position Bachmann for a potential presidential run. "I'm a small-business mom who's interested in America being the way it was intended in our Constitution. In South Carolina, there are a lot of folks like us here."
Beyond hosting Bachmann's fundraiser, Tatro also was an organizer of an ostensibly non-partisan voter registration party Saturday featuring Bachmann and U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., a local hero since he shouted "You lie!" at President Obama during a joint session of Congress in 2009.
'The dividing line'
Bachmann ripped Obama at the event, but Republican state Sen. Tom Davis of Beaufort said there was nothing partisan about it.
"It's government -- the ruling class -- and the people," he said. "That's the dividing line."
Some South Carolina Democrats were skeptical about the timing of the two weekend events in Bluffton.
"Yeah, right," said Dick Harpootlian, a Columbia lawyer running for his second stint as state Democratic Party head. "It's partisan the night before, nonpartisan tomorrow."
But Harpootlian, while taking note of Palin's popularity among grass-roots Republican activists in South Carolina, sees no reason to count out Bachmann, who touches the same nerves: "It's all about emotion, and that works very well here."
A decade ago, that raw insurgent power might have been the end of the road for a candidate in South Carolina, as Pat Buchanan found out in 1996 and John McCain found in 2000 when their early support couldn't translate here. But now with small Tea Party groups like Bluffton's dotting the state and stoking anti-establishment fervor, the state's GOP insiders aren't ruling anybody in or out.
"There are a lot of social conservatives, fiscal conservatives, conservatives of all stripes and blends of the above," McMaster said. "So someone with a strong conservative message will do well in South Carolina."
Bachmann, emerging from the Bluffton voter registration party at Montana's restaurant, said she felt anything but foreboding about the state, which she called "GOP paradise'' during a February visit.
"I don't see South Carolina as the end of the road," she said, "I see it as a launching pad."
Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.