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WASHINGTON - Amid TV cameras, microphone booms and a large crowd chanting against "Obamacare," U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann was back in the national spotlight Tuesday.
Even with her presidential campaign in mothballs, the Minnesota Republican was received like a celebrity by Tea Partiers who mobbed her for autographs and photos outside the U.S. Supreme Court, which is deciding the constitutionality of a health care law that she was the first to challenge in Congress.
"This is the day we have been waiting for," Bachmann told a crowd on the Supreme Court steps. "We have not waved the white flag of surrender on socialized medicine."
Politically marginalized since a poor showing in the Iowa caucuses in January, Bachmann is again in the center of attention this week as the nation focuses on the Affordable Care Act, the health care overhaul that propelled her to the national stage two years ago.
Once a GOP backbencher best known for questioning Obama's "anti-American" views on television, Bachmann molded herself into the "point of the spear" of a national movement to reverse the health care measure that Republicans now regularly deride as "Obamacare."
The face of the repeal effort
"She is a special treasure to the country, our movement and to freedom," said Americans for Prosperity President Tim Phillips, who chose Bachmann to headline a large Tea Party rally on Capitol Hill. "There's no one who's worked harder and longer for the cause than Michele Bachmann."
The rally, which attracted several thousand people, was an echo of the first Tea Party "House Call" rally that Bachmann organized in 2009 over the misgivings of GOP leaders, who at the time were planning a more measured response to Democrats' health care proposals. Bachmann was the surprise star of that rally, which ultimately served as a platform for her run for the presidency.
Fast forward to the law's two-year anniversary. There is no issue with which Bachmann is more closely identified. "She's helped advance this substantially in the presidential race, and I'm glad she's in this," said U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa. "She's not backing off."
There also are few national politicians as closely identified with the repeal effort as Bachmann, who has regularly been pilloried by Democrats for comparing the bureaucracies created under the health law to "death panels."
In a series of rallies this week, Bachmann took credit for filing repeal legislation the morning after congressional passage in 2010, staying up all night to foment a backlash she would later describe as a "covenant."
"She's a wonderful patriot," said Janice Haddon, a retired Catholic schoolteacher from Atlanta who came out to hear Bachmann on the Supreme Court steps. "I am so grateful to her for writing the bill. She's a great leader."
Still, while Bachmann wrote the repeal bill, the version eventually passed by the House was authored by GOP leaders.
'Health care dictator'
Even as Bachmann has been calling on the Supreme Court to upend the law, she continues to hold out hope that Congress eventually will reverse course on its own.
"This [repeal] is not an issue that should be decided by the court," she told reporters last week. "This is an issue that should be decided by the legislators, and we need to be the ones to pass the repeal of the bill."
Though favored to win re-election to Congress, Bachmann would have her political stature enhanced by a Supreme Court ruling undermining the law's central provision: the requirement that everybody get health insurance. She has announced that she will attend Wednesday's oral arguments before the high court, where she is likely to receive the sort of media attention she got as a long-shot presidential candidate.
"It's unfortunate her presidential campaign didn't go further," said Rick Melbye, a pharmacist in Moorhead, Minn., who attended Tuesday's rally. "She's taken charge of this from the day it passed."
Bachmann has made it clear that she aims to turn opposition to the health care bill into a signature election-year issue to deny Obama a second term. "In the future, you see, we will not be electing a president," Bachmann told the crowd Tuesday. If the health care law stands, she said, "we will be electing a health care dictator."
Still, Bachmann has not endorsed anyone in the race for the GOP nomination, where challenger Rick Santorum has tried to exploit similarities between the federal health care law and the mandate signed by front-runner Mitt Romney while governor of Massachusetts.
As a presidential candidate, Bachmann derided the Massachusetts law as "socialized medicine," much like Obamacare. Since then, she has backed off her criticism of Romney, instead calling for unity within the GOP ranks.
Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.