WASHINGTON - As she launches what could be the most intriguing presidential campaign of 2012, everything about Michele Bachmann is in dispute, even the April Fool's Day shocker that launched her political career more than a decade ago.

In Bachmann's own telling, she had no intention of going home as the nominee of the 2000 Republican Senate District 56 convention in Stillwater. She hadn't even put on makeup that morning. She showed up in jeans. Later that day, her husband returned home to a series of congratulatory phone messages. He thought it was an April Fool's joke.

It wasn't, as the congresswoman now tells delighted audiences from Iowa to South Carolina. But she says it was a surprise.

Rewind the tape for veteran GOP state senator Gary Laidig and his supporters, and it's a different story.

"It was totally planned," said Laidig backer Denise Stephens, who remembers a convention hall packed with Bachmann supporters from her days as a charter school activist in the 1990s. "It was not an accident."

Accidental or not, Bachmann's polarizing journey from the State Capitol to Congress and possibly beyond has been a tale of high drama and conflict. Few Republicans in Congress generate more animosity from Democrats, a point of pride for Bachmann in frequent fundraising pitches that portray her as a top target of House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi.

More significant are the divisions she has sown within her own party, where she is seen as a Tea Party maven all too willing to overshadow GOP leaders in Congress, going so far as to eclipse the official GOP response to President Obama's State of the Union Address in January with one of her own.

"You've got to be willing to take on our party, the other party and then explain it to the people," she told GOP supporters in New Hampshire recently. "I know I can make the case to the American people and win them over to our side."

Changing the landscape

Which is precisely how Bachmann got started in politics, taking on Laidig, a Republican stalwart who had served in the Legislature for 28 years.

"It was kind of a change in the landscape," said Laidig, who was targeted in part for his vote to extend civil rights protections to gays and lesbians. "It was part of a change in the Republican Party."

Strikingly, Laidig supporters recall that one of the GOP leaders who tried to salvage the old guard incumbents at the convention was then-Minnesota House Majority Leader Tim Pawlenty, now vying with Bachmann for the favor of voters in 2012.

It would be their first head-to-head matchup.

Bachmann went on to win Laidig's seat in the Minnesota Senate, where she made her mark as a fierce advocate for a constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriage.

In a prologue to her failed bid for a GOP leadership post in Congress this year, Bachmann was removed from a leadership position in the Minnesota Senate in 2005 over what she termed "philosophical" differences with then-Senate Republican Leader Dick Day.

"Day took the establishment approach and Michele took the constitutional conservative approach," said Bachmann aide Andy Parrish.

'Had a vision'

Bachmann's outsider status, which helps her connect with Tea Party enthusiasts and small-dollar donors across the nation, was cemented long before she entered politics.

Once a Jimmy Carter Democrat, Bachmann became a Reagan Republican in her senior year at Winona State University.

She later got a law degree from a small school affiliated with Oral Roberts University, launching her career as an IRS attorney and anti-abortion crusader.

She raised five children with her husband, Marcus Bachmann, a Christian counselor. They also took in 23 foster children over the years, raising eyebrows with critics, but a feat that she mentions frequently on the stump.

Bachmann's own children did not attend public schools. But the first public firestorm of her career arose in connection with her activism in the state's fledgling charter school movement in 1993.

Bachmann and other parents started New Heights, a Stillwater K-12 charter school where Bachmann, as board director, was accused of attempting to inject her version of Christianity into the curriculum. She ended the dispute by resigning from the board amid a packed public hearing.

Stephens, a leader of an opposing group of parents, said Bachmann told a teacher she couldn't show the Disney movie "Aladdin" because it depicted magic. She said Bachmann also told a teacher not to let students make Native American dreamcatchers because they were part of a pagan religion.

"She very much had a vision, she felt it was the right vision, and she was going to ramrod it through regardless of what anyone else wanted," said Stephens, a longtime Republican who has turned independent.

Bachmann contends that their differences were not over religion, but over the mission of the school.

After Bachmann resigned, she continued to rail against the Profile of Learning, a controversial set of state educational standards later repealed.

Former state Sen. Allen Quist, a Bachmann supporter who worked with her on the Maple River Education Coalition, a group devoted to the repeal of the Profile of Learning, says it is no surprise that controversy has always followed her.

"She believes in certain principles," Quist said, "and people that don't share those principles might call anyone who has those principles divisive."

In 1999, Bachmann ran as part of an unprecedented slate of GOP candidates for the Stillwater school board, normally a nonpartisan body. None of them won.

But Bachmann immediately gained a reputation for political hardball. One of the incumbents, Mary Cecconi, said that Bachmann falsely accused her of being endorsed by Planned Parenthood.

"Nuance is not her gig," said Cecconi, a Democrat who now heads the advocacy group Parents United for Public Schools. "People who live in the gray, they just go ballistic with her. But people who love black and white, she's their hero. She says what they're thinking but don't have the nerve to say."

'Scratching their heads'

While Bachmann's unvarnished conservatism resonates the Tea Party base, some view her as unelectable in a nationwide race, and therefore a problem for the GOP establishment if she performs well in the critical first-in-the-nation caucuses in Iowa, where she was born.

"I have to think Republican graybeards are really scratching their heads over her," said Washington political analyst Stuart Rothenberg. "It would be uncomfortable for them if she wins, because she represents the most combative, vocal and confrontational elements of the party."

But that's just what her followers are counting on. "The sentiment of the country is to support candidates that are going to make a difference," Quist said. "They don't want middle-of-the roaders when it comes to dealing with our nation's financial crisis. They want people who are committed to solving the problem."

Even Cecconi, the only Democrat who has beaten Bachmann in an election, says it's a mistake to count her out: "I stopped selling her short a long time ago."

Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.