In a presidential debate marked by surprisingly harsh personal exchanges between the GOP front-runners, Minnesota Republican Michele Bachmann managed to stay out of worst of it.
That could be either good or bad fortune for the congresswoman, since her performance in Las Vegas probably didn’t move her up or down much in the pack.
She did launch one of the most personal attacks of the evening, but it wasn’t directed at anybody in the room. Rather, she took aim at the legal status of President Barack Obama’s own aunt and uncle from Kenya, a guaranteed piece of GOP red meat on the immigration question.
Somewhat less in character for Bachmann was her direct appeal to gender politics – lamenting the impact of the housing crisis on mothers. “When you talk about housing, when you talk about foreclosures, you are talking about women who are at the end of their rope,” she said. “They’re losing their nest for their children and their family.”
Without saying exactly how, Bachmann urged mothers, one of her key constituencies, to hang on. “Hold on, moms out there. It’s not too late.”
Bachmann also added a new twist to her antipathy for taxes, saying that the half of the nation that doesn’t earn enough to pay federal income taxes should still pony up something. “Every American should pay something,” she said, “even if it’s a dollar.”
Her most substantive moment came when she joined the GOP wolf pack in shredding Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 plan. “Anytime you give Congress a new tax,” she said, “it doesn’t go away.”
One of the few jabs directed her way came from Texas Gov. Rick Perry, whom she had attacked on immigration. “I will build a fence,” she said. “I will enforce English as the official language of the United States.”
Perry, already having a rough outing against establishment favorite Mitt Romney, all but accused Bachmann of pandering, saying that her “lecture” was a “play to some group of people somewhere.”
Still, Bachmann struggled to join the fray at times. She could be heard off camera at least twice beseeching CNN moderator Anderson Cooper to call on her. At the end, when he recognized her for a final word, she used the occasion to repeat her familiar campaign mantra that Obama “will be a one term president.”
But in the end, it might have been Bachmann who had the most poetic line of the night, making a point about the economic impact of burdensome government regulation. In a line reminiscent of Jesse Jackson, she said, “it’s more than the cost, it’s the jobs that are lost.”
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