As she settles into her new life in a Congress led by Democrats, Michele Bachmann is learning hard lessons about politics in the glare of YouTube -- and shifting to a more guarded style.
Michele Bachmann strides along the Capitol Mall, lit by the morning sun shimmering off the marble of this impossibly gleaming city. In sneakers and a trim jogging suit, her hair clipped back, she's more a fresh-faced speed walker than the chic congresswoman from Minnesota who vowed to "hit the ground running, even in high heels."
Bachmann loves to walk. Working up a sweat helps her cope with her bustling new life in Congress, where she's relegated to a minority role she hadn't bargained for, and where the studied protocol can test a pencil-tapper and hair-twirler such as herself.
Bachmann, 51, has been here barely six months, a quarter of a term that began with harsh headlines. She was widely mocked after the State of the Union address for gripping President Bush's shoulder as firmly as a mother at Target, then later for confidently claiming to know about an Iranian plan to partition Iraq.
She offers no apologies, but the incidents have made her more wary, more conscious that video cameras and YouTube have an audience, and that the blogosphere has a taste for blood.
You have to stay on your toes.
So she walks the Mall, reclaiming a routine that lapsed after bunion surgery on both feet after the campaign. Recovery meant weeks of putting aside her favored kitten-heeled slides for clunky orthopedic sandals. But she wore them, growing to realize the benefits of their lower profile.
Congress wasn't supposed to be this way. During the campaign, the Republicans controlled the gavels and Bush had the faith of the party. Bachmann's victory as the first Republican woman sent from Minnesota to the House was a payoff for fundraising visits by Laura Bush, Karl Rove, Dick Cheney and the president himself. Yet Bachmann emerged as one of only 13 Republican newcomers, the smallest freshman class in 60 years. And control of the House swung to the Democrats.
"It changed everything," she said.
Chairmanships shifted. Priorities were shuffled. The lightning-rod conservative who swept into Washington on the votes of fundamentalist Christians found herself in a House chamber controlled by Nancy Pelosi, a take-no-prisoners liberal.
The power shift also upended her family's plans to deal with her absence. The workweek during the last Congress was generally Tuesday through Thursday. Now members are in session Monday through Friday. "About the only way to see us is to take time off work, buy a plane ticket and get to Washington," she said.
Sometimes, her husband, Marcus, and teenage daughters Elisa, Caroline and Sophia do just that. (Sons Lucas and Harrison are in college.) Bachmann flies home Friday nights, spends Saturdays working and tries, mightily, to reserve Sundays for family. "If our kids weren't this good," she said, "we couldn't do this."
Another emerging change is the erosion of support among citizens and Congress for the president. Despite her respect -- some might say starry-eyed admiration -- for Bush, Bachmann says his diminishing influence has no impact on her.
"I ran to stand on my views," she said. "I have great respect for the president for the stand he has taken against radical Islamo-fascists. I've been very strongly behind the president in his desire to keep Americans safe." But she disagreed with him on his "guest worker" proposal for illegal immigrants and wants to repeal his No Child Left Behind Act.
"He's become a big spender, and in some cases an out-of-control spender, during his term in office, and I'm a strong fiscal conservative," she said.
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One sunny afternoon in May, members of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce settle into her cheerful office with its lemon-sherbet walls. Swiveling in her chair, legal pad in her lap, Bachmann asks questions, her next query often landing on the last syllable of someone's answer.