Drawing cameras wherever she goes, the Tea Party's rock star tests presidential waters her way.
Everyone is waiting expectantly for Michele Bachmann at Calef's Country Store, a picture-perfect backdrop for generations of presidential hopefuls.
Suddenly, as if popping out of a TV set, Bachmann alights from a rented Ford E-350 van and heads for the wooden front doors. Brighter than life in a brilliant coral dress and suit jacket, she is trailed by a retinue that includes husband Marcus Bachmann and eldest son Lucas, who just completed a medical degree in Connecticut.
A crowd swirls around her on this fourth stop in a daylong, campaign-style blitz that has taken her coast-to-coast, lobbing rhetorical bombs about "gangster government," "socialized medicine" and "arrogant elites."
It's playing well around the wood-burning stove and molasses barrels inside Calef's.
"You'd be hard pressed to find a more conservative, true-to-life, honest person," said Jerry DeLemus, of the Granite State Patriots. "Times have changed in American politics and it's not the same-old, same-old."
That's just what Bachmann strategists think, as they busily rewrite the manual for a potential White House bid that could change the political equation in the early voting states of Iowa and South Carolina, where Bachmann is already becoming a familiar face.
Increasingly seen as someone who could snatch the Tea Party crown from Sarah Palin, Bachmann is afflicting liberals and GOP establishment types alike and stoking grass-roots fervor wherever she goes.
At the same time, she leaves a growing trail of flubs and misstatements in her wake, raising questions about whether her ceaseless national brand-building is ready for the big stage.
True to form, Bachmann recently gave a rousing speech in New Hampshire, marred only by her mistaken christening of the Granite State as the seat of the Revolutionary War. "You're the state where the shot was heard around the world in Lexington and Concord," she told one crowd, confusing New Hampshire with Massachusetts.
Bachmann brushed it off with a Facebook joke about never again using "President Obama's teleprompter," showing off her proclivity for verbal ju-jitsu against political opponents.
Where her combative, take-no-prisoners style might lead is unknown. What is certain is that Bachmann's rivals ignore her at their peril.
"She's a rock star to the social conservatives, and she's shown an incredible ability to generate small contributions," said ex-congressman Vin Weber, a co-chair of former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty's political organization. "If she runs for president, she will have an impact."
By virtue of her pull among the religious conservatives who make up a large chunk of Iowa GOP caucusgoers, Bachmann could at least complicate life for Pawlenty, who is laying plans for his own presidential ambitions.
'Infrastructure in a box'
Bachmann's initial swing through the first-in-the-nation primary state last week put her in direct contact with the usual well-placed GOP party operatives.
More important, it solidified her connection to the New Hampshire GOP's ascendant Tea Party apparatus. Party Chairman Jack Kimball comes out of the Tea Party movement. It's a grass-roots network that could prove crucial in any dark-horse quest for the White House.
"Her brand is Tea Party," said marketing consultant Andrew Hemingway, chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Liberty Caucus, which helped elect Tea Partier William O'Brien as New Hampshire House speaker. "It's also a new type of Republican leadership. There's a fresh element to her, and obviously, she's a woman."
With few trappings of a conventional campaign organization and with GOP leaders in the U.S. House keeping their distance, Bachmann appears to rely on Tea Party energy to fuel a highly targeted, if narrowly based, crusade.
"It's infrastructure in a box," said Nashville lawyer Judson Phillips of the Tea Party Nation. "All she has to do is walk in and take it."
Bachmann's closest aides say that until now, the three-term congresswoman's kitchen cabinet has consisted mostly of her tight-knit family.
"The only person she talks to as an insider is her husband, Marcus, who's a wonderful man, and her son Lucas," said former Minnesota Republican Party Chair Ron Carey, who served as Bachmann's chief of staff last year. "That's really her brain trust."
Marcus and Lucas Bachmann both cop to the plea.
"Yes, I'm her strategist," Marcus Bachmann said as he dashed into Calef's with an autographed Michele Bachmann baseball card for deli man Joel Sherburne, who was suddenly a fan.
Lucas Bachmann, 28, also acknowledged a role, calling himself a William F. Buckley libertarian conservative.
With longtime aide Andy Parrish the only paid handler at Calef's, it was left to Marcus Bachmann, a Christian therapist, to help manage the drive-by visit and stay on schedule. As the congresswoman chatted amiably with Mitch Michaud, a local Tea Party activist who came to see her in person, Marcus Bachmann gently put his arms around his wife and tried to lead her out the door.
'Do it her way'
Paid political consultants -- and there are a few -- form Bachmann's outer circle. That arms-length arrangement is a source of Bachmann's strength, but also has led to some of her greatest public blunders.
Her team includes nationally recognized media adviser Ed Brookover, former political director for the National Republican Congressional Committee. Capitol Hill veteran Guy Short handles fundraising. A new face on the team is Rebecca Donatelli, who pitches herself as an "online political pioneer" who helped raise $100 million for Sen. John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign.
Bachmann stunned the political world last year when she raised $13.5 million -- much of it in small donations from across the country -- for her reelection campaign against a little-known DFL opponent.
She now has an e-mail list of more than a half-million supporters, 160,000 individual donors, and more than 185,000 people who follow her on Facebook.
While she has yet to form the typical state-based networks that make up a conventional political ground game, Bachmann's advisers say she has no plans to be a conventional candidate.
"If she runs, she's going to do it her way, and her way has always been the grass-roots way," said Parrish, her chief of staff. "It hasn't been the conventional way when it comes to anything."
Critics say that Bachmann's shoot-from-the-lip style and her propensity to keep her own counsel have led to a growing pile of headline-inducing exaggerations and misstatements.
She famously talked about an Iranian plan to partition Iraq, said Obama's trip to India would cost taxpayers $200 million a day, and erroneously stated that Obama had accumulated more debt in one year than all of the previous 43 presidents combined.
"It was a challenge, and still is, to keep her facts totally correct," said Carey, who served as Bachmann's top aide for six months. Carey, who now supports Pawlenty for president, says that he and others on her congressional staff would sometimes work overtime to clean up her inaccuracies, which he attributes to a thirst for attention, a fast pace and a "swashbuckling" style that sometimes ignores advice.
"Her list of political advisers is basically she and herself," Carey said. "She doesn't have a broad list of people in her inner circle."
As exuberant and outgoing as Bachmann may seem to those who witness her energetic pronouncements on cable TV, Carey and others who remain in her camp describe her as a bookish former tax attorney, a natural introvert who studies long hours to master the issues.
Her brother, Paul Amble, a Yale psychiatrist, suggested that a reporter at Calef's ask what's on Bachmann's reading list.
One book she mentioned on the stump was Mark Levin's "Liberty and Tyranny: A Conservative Manifesto."
In the end, the gaffes may not matter. The more the press focuses on her misstatements, the more the faithful seem to love her.
"She portrays herself as the victim with the media out to get her," said Cook Political Report analyst David Wasserman. "That enhances her ability to raise money and heightens her national profile."
'Travel speaks for itself'
If Bachmann has her next move mapped out, it's the map that will have to do the talking.
"Her travel speaks for itself," Wasserman said. "It's an indication of somebody trying to raise a national profile and be part of the 2012 conversation, if not a candidate."
Parrish rejects the idea -- widely held among Washington analysts -- that Bachmann's flirtation with the presidency is merely a publicity stunt to build a donor list.
"If she does decide to run, it's going to be to win," Parrish said. "Not to raise her profile."
As most anyone in New Hampshire can attest, Bachmann already has name recognition. Her massive national donor base also features some big names. One that stands out: Fox News personality Sean Hannity and his wife, Jill, gave a combined $10,000 last August to Michele PAC, Bachmann's political action committee.
Her frequent appearances on Hannity's show certainly whetted appetites at Calef's. "I've been watching her on the news and getting more and more interested," said Michaud, a retired Navy veteran who belongs to a conservative group spawned by Fox Channel personality Glenn Beck. After meeting her in person at Calef's, Michaud declared himself even more impressed. "I'm liking what I'm hearing," he said. "Very much so."
Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.