ST. PAUL, Minn. - Michele Bachmann has an escape hatch if she can't revive her sputtering presidential campaign: The Minnesota Republican never ruled out a return to Congress.
A loyal GOP base back home, uncertainty over district boundaries and tepidness by possible successors are helping keep Bachmann's political options open. But among party operatives and past allies, there are increasing doubts that Bachmann will try to reclaim her seat — or would even want to go back to the House.
The fuzziness around Bachmann's future distinguishes her from a House colleague in the presidential race, Ron Paul of Texas, who closed the door to another congressional campaign. None of the other GOP hopefuls face the up-or-out choice because they're mostly former officeholders or, in the case of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, only midway through a current term.
While finally in the majority party, Bachmann regularly finds herself at odds with Republican leaders on strategy and policy. Her bid for a leadership post went nowhere last winter. She is better known for her vocal opposition to legislation than brokering deals. And the possibility of lucrative TV or speaking circuit contracts could prove more enticing — and assure her continued visibility.
"Congress is too small for Michele," said Jack Tomczak, a former political director for Bachmann's congressional campaign. "Leadership has never given her the opportunity to do much. So I think she's going to be looking for other avenues where she can be more successful."
Her reputation for not being a team player shows through her empty column of Capitol Hill endorsements; none of the three fellow Minnesotans in Congress are publicly backing her. Some argue Bachmann would return as a weakened figure if her pre-campaign might among tea party members fails to carry her very far; that strength afforded her a powerful platform in Washington despite not being in the leadership circle.
Bachmann's campaign ignored requests for comment on her fallback plans. When Bachmann launched her bid in June, she said she had "suspended" all congressional campaign activities and siphoned money from that campaign fund into her new presidential account.
She built herself into an early contender by playing up her tea party and evangelical Christian ties. She won the Iowa GOP straw poll in August, but has since stumbled out of the lead pack.
Mark Pischea, a former National Republican Congressional Committee executive, said returning to Congress could help Bachmann rehabilitate her political image and fill in resume gaps that gave voters pause.
"If she's interested in staying on the national stage, if she's interested in maintaining the possibility of running again for president one day, if she's interested in affecting public policy at the federal level, Congress is where she should be," Pischea said.
For now, Minnesota Republicans are giving her space. But as 2012 approaches, some potential candidates are watching their own window narrow for organizing support and raising millions of dollars a race would require.
"She's in the driver's seat," said GOP consultant Scott Cottington. "The real question is at what point will be people become nervous. I wonder if people will start to question whether or not she can turn back and come home."
Bachmann, who raised a whopping $13.5 million toward her last race, would likely start with an empty tank. She had raked in $1.5 million by the start of 2010.
If she does run for Congress, Democrats are primed to trot out Bachmann's comments putting Minnesota in her rearview mirror.
"I'm an Iowan," Bachmann has stressed repeatedly in the critical caucus state. She even made Minnesota a punch line in some Iowa speeches, joking this summer in her hometown of Waterloo that as a young girl she fretted a move to "exotic, faraway" Minnesota. "That would put fear in the heart of any Iowan," she said.
Democrats are also making note of her absenteeism. She's missed almost 50 percent of recorded House votes since getting to the race in mid-June and hasn't cast any since Aug. 1, according data compiled by Govtrack.us.
The largely suburban district where Bachmann handily won a third term in 2010 will undergo big changes before next year's election. A court panel redrawing Minnesota political maps must cut almost 100,000 people out from the district that now stretches from the Wisconsin border past St. Cloud. Where the new lines fall will determine the district's political competitiveness, but it's highly likely the GOP-leaning district loses some conservative strongholds to the west.
The court won't rule until late February — well after Bachmann should know her presidential fate. State law gives her until June 5 to file for re-election, although the Minnesota party endorsement process begins months earlier.
The district is currently home to power players in the state GOP who get mentioned as possible candidates, including House Majority Leader Matt Dean, Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch and 2010 gubernatorial nominee Tom Emmer. State Rep. Mary Kiffmeyer, a former secretary of state, said she is considering running. So is former state Rep. Phil Krinkie, president of the Minnesota Taxpayers League.
Krinkie, who challenged Bachmann for the party nod when she first won the seat in 2006, said if he decides to run he may not wait for official word from the incumbent because of the time and cost involved in waging a high-profile campaign. But he said he'd step aside if she reverts back to the House race.
"I've seen what happens when people try to step into the ring with her," Krinkie said. "I understand the amount of money, the amount of time and the amount of organization it takes. But if I were to do it I would certainly put a disclaimer on anything I did."
Former state Rep. Jim Knoblach said it's a delicate situation for any candidate.
"Anyone who tries to go out and do too much right now risks alienating delegates, most of whom like Michele," Knoblach said.