WASHINGTON - As a presidential candidate, U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann showed no fear of taking on President Obama or the GOP establishment, faulting her own party for going along on the August debt deal and the Wall Street bank bailouts.
But rarely has the Minnesota Republican been a better barometer of the strains within her party than when it comes to presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, whose candidacy has yet to fire up the rank and file, particularly among Tea Partiers and Ron Paul Libertarians.
In the weeks since Rick Santorum's exit from the race, Bachmann has had at least two chances on national television to get on board Romney's increasingly inevitable candidacy. Both times her comments stopped short of a full endorsement of the former Massachusetts governor.
On "Meet the Press" last Sunday, Bachmann said she is "very seriously looking at an endorsement of Mitt Romney." A few days later on CNN's "John King USA," she professed her excitement about bringing various party factions together. But, she added, "this doesn't happen overnight. We're in the process of coalescing and uniting and it's all in due time."
In March, as CNN noted, Bachmann told Wolf Blitzer that the party needed to "unify quickly" behind a candidate, and that she would back "whoever the people choose."
Bachmann's unhurried tilt toward Romney stands in contrast to former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who got behind Romney almost immediately after dropping out of the presidential race last summer.
But Bachmann's diffidence echoes that of many other Tea Partiers and conservative Republicans in Congress, whose expressions of support for the quasi-official nominee have tended to emphasize dislike of Obama more than like of Romney.
"I am not as excited as I am desperate" to replace Obama, Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas told reporters, according to Congressional Quarterly.
Among Minnesotans in Congress, Romney has so far received the explicit backing of only Rep. Erik Paulsen, who went public on Jan. 26 praising Romney's "proven leadership and experience." Rep. John Kline, the dean of the Minnesota GOP congressional delegation, has made no endorsement, preferring to let the delegate process play itself out. Ditto for freshman Republican Chip Cravaack.
In some quarters, the slow-movement toward Romney has come out of respect for Santorum. But none of the Minnesota Republicans in Congress had been in Santorum's camp, least of all Bachmann, who vied with the former Pennsylvania senator for the affections of Christian conservatives in Iowa.
Bachmann says she has talked to both Santorum and Romney, praising them both. But like many Tea Party activists who are still arguably the base of the Republican Party, she's been in no rush to give Romney her blessing.
In politics, endorsements often come with strings attached. It would be logical for Tea Partiers to want to leverage Romney their way as he transitions to general election mode.
In Bachmann's case, another question presents itself, mainly because of Romney's perceived need to make inroads with the Tea Party: Would she want a place on the ticket? "That's up to the governor," Bachmann demurred on CNN. "We trust him to make the wisest decision for our team and for our party. And we know that he'll do that."
Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.A LOOK AHEAD
Tuesday: Minneapolis holds a public hearing on a proposed Vikings stadium, 4-6:30 p.m., Room 317 of City Hall.