Image: Michele Bachmann
Charlie Neibergall  /  AP
Republican presidential candidate Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., speaks during a Faith and Family Council news conference in Des Moines, Iowa Oct. 4, 2011.
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updated 10/7/2011 11:37:10 AM ET 2011-10-07T15:37:10

Michele Bachmann surged into the Republican presidential race by preaching tea party fiscal conservatism. Now, as she struggles to remain relevant, the Minnesota congresswoman is trying to rally the evangelical voters who have powered most of her political career.

"Don't settle," has become Bachmann's pitch as she tells Christian conservatives they shouldn't accept a Republican nominee who isn't fully dedicated to their priorities.

It's likely to be her message when she speaks Friday night to activists gathered at the Values Voters Summit in Washington, a who's who of social conservatives who lead the constituencies Bachmann needs to court. She won't have the stage alone; the other Republican presidential candidates conservatives favor are scheduled to speak earlier in the day.

Bachmann reached the high point of her campaign seven weeks ago when she won a test vote of Iowa Republicans. But as Texas Gov. Rick Perry entered the race, Bachmann dropped in polls, replaced her top campaign staff and struggled to raise money. And even as Republicans have grown wary of Perry, polls show that it's businessman Herman Cain who's rising from Perry's slide — not Bachmann.

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So, as she looks for a political lifeline, Bachmann has retooled her message to focus intensely on energizing conservative Christian voters, who traditionally have a heavy influence in the early voting states of Iowa and South Carolina. Bachmann's campaign still views tea party support as integral to her success, and she still talks about fiscal issues, but she's also returned to speaking in more overtly religious terms.

Video: Immigration war heats up on campaign trail (on this page)

"It was really pretty intimate and quite personal," said the Rev. George Grant, the chancellor at New College Franklin, a Christian college in Franklin, Tenn., after hearing Bachmann speak to about 200 evangelical pastors and faith leaders gathered near Nashville.

Grant said he arrived at the speech uncommitted to a candidate but left much likelier to support Bachmann. "She was speaking to a lot of like-minded folks and she was using their language," he said.

On Thursday, Bachmann's congressional office announced she would sponsor a bill in Congress that seemed aimed directly at evangelical voters. The "Heartbeat Informed Consent Act" would require doctors who perform abortions to show the mother an ultrasound image of the baby's heartbeat before performing the procedure.

Bachmann's campaign is looking for "pastor chairmen" in all 99 Iowa counties, each charged with building support not just among churchgoers but with other ministers and church lay leaders. Similar organizing is under way in South Carolina and Florida.

"I think we're building toward having a more comprehensive evangelical outreach in Iowa than anyone's ever had before, with the possible exception of when Pat Robertson ran," said Bob Heckman, a Bachmann consultant and GOP presidential campaign veteran.

Heckman said fiscal conservatives remain important to Bachmann's campaign, which is also looking for 99 tea-party chairmen in Iowa. Still, there is no question that Bachmann is particularly well-suited to refocus her efforts on reaching Christian conservatives: She distinguished herself in Minnesota as a politician who didn't merely align herself with the religious right, but rather rose from the heart of the movement.

"Don't settle when it comes to your relationship with Jesus Christ," Bachmann recently told an audience at Liberty University, the Virginia Christian college founded by televangelist Jerry Falwell. "He is the lord of the universe, the master, the creator, the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end."

Bachmann repeated that theme— "don't settle" — and urged evangelicals not to choose a nominee who has strayed from their principles. It's a shift from Bachmann's earlier emphasis on spending restraint and the federal government's overreach.

Video: Bachmann’s greatest foreign policy ‘hits’ (on this page)

It's also the message at the core of Bachmann's political history. As a law student at Oral Roberts University in the 1980s she was taught that Christian morality is the basis of U.S. law. Bachmann proceeded from that point as an activist and politician — as a protester outside abortion clinics; as a school board candidate who blasted state education standards for downplaying the religious convictions of America's founding fathers; and as a state senator who helped organize and lead a "pastor's summit" at a suburban megachurch to build support for a constitutional ban of gay marriage.

By the time Bachmann first ran for Congress in 2006, she was comfortable enough with congregations to take to the pulpit at a suburban megachurch near Minneapolis and proclaim herself a "fool for Christ," while winning the endorsement of its pastor.

Bachmann's strategy isn't without risk — previous candidates boosted by Iowa's evangelical voters have failed to capitalize on that success once the campaign left the state. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister, won the Iowa caucuses in 2008 but could never draw even with eventual GOP nominee John McCain. Pat Robertson — a spiritual father of today's Christian conservatives — finished an unexpectedly strong second in 1988 but failed to match that success elsewhere.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Immigration war heats up on campaign trail

  1. Closed captioning of: Immigration war heats up on campaign trail

    >>> a new ad by michele bachmann attacks rick perry on immigration. they say week-long offensive on the text governor for comments he made at the last debate. he defended in state tuition rates for illegal immigration . in is bachmann's response.

    >> last week we conservatives were accused of not having a heart. nothing could be further from the truth. it's just is that we have a mind to go with that heart. we can't settle for a president who doesn't understand illegal immigration is illegal and shouldn't be rewarded.

    >> joining me now is susan page , washington bureau chief for " usa today ." good to see you.

    >> nice to be here.

    >> so, susan, we had romney also releasing an ad hitting perry on that comment. is immigration an issue that could turn the gop primary and if it is, who stands to benefit?

    >> this is rick perry 's biggest single problem. the biggest problem isn't that he gave that wandering answer when he was asked about pakistan and the debate. it's that he was at odds with his republican base and his core voters on the issue of immigration. while he's tried to walk back the comment he said where if you had a different view, you didn't have a heart, the fact is he hasn't walked back from the position he took, which is a good thing in texas to allow in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants who are here illegally themselves.

    >> okay. let's take a listen to perry going after romney in a speech yesterday in atlanta. here's that.

    >> i'm confident we're going to chose a nominee that has governed with conservative principles, not paid the way for obama care, a path that blazed this world with higher premiums and with the loss of thousands of jobs.

    >> so, perry 's trying to hit his biggest rival here, but when will the rest of the field start giving romney some heat? it still seems to be pile on perry time.

    >> well, you know, i don't think the race now is between -- among awe the candidates is between romney and the rest of the field. so everybody else wants to be the anti- romney candidate, which is why we see michele bachmann and rick santorum and others really targeting rick perry , who is at least at the moment romney 's biggest contender. you know, we're not going to settle this race right now. we're going to have a contest in iowa and new hampshire and nevada and south carolina and florida. there is going to be at the end, i think, most analysts believe, two finalists. one will be romney . what we don't know who is the other -- it's as if that's the case, that means everybody else is battling amongst themselves, they can portray themselves as the most conservative and be that person against romney ?

    >> that's right. most conservative, most appealing to the tea party candidates. what do we see from the flurry about will chris christie run or will someone else jump in this race? it's that there are a group of republicans that are not happy with their choice. especially with the option of mitt romney as the nominee. now, he may still get the nomination. some things that give him problems in the primaries could actually help mitt romney in a general election . but that is the race we're going to see.

    >> in the latest fox news poll this week, herman cain seems to have jumped into the top tier . are you surprised by this, susan? do you think he can maintain this?

    >> you know, i think this also reflects a little bit of dissatisfaction with the choices republicans have. i was down in florida last weekend covering that straw poll that herman cain actually won. when i talked to delegates there who were going to vote for herman cain , it was because they were uneasy about rick perry . a lot arrived at the straw poll thinking they wanted to support governor perry , unhappy with his position on immigration and his performance in the debate. cain is someone that resonated with a lot of republican voters but even the delegates i talked to did not think they were going to be with him in the long haul. he's a none of the above candidate.

    >> do you get a sense of any momentum? you're there in orlando, you waf the latest debate. where do you think the momentum lies?

    >> the momentum, you know, we have a slow and steady candidate, mitt romney , the tortoise. rick perry as the hare. he jumped into the race and got to the top of the polls. he has stalled some. i think we're waiting to see the next couple of debates. one in new hampshire on october 11th to see whether rick perry can recover. rick perry has a lot of strengths. he connects well with audiences. he has a long history. the nation's senior serving governor. he does have some harm to repair on the immigration stance and looking a little more self-confident and informed on issues in the next debate.

    >> who do you think will be the first to drop out?

    >> you know, i don't see why anyone would drop out at this point. because we're seeing even candidates with no money like newt gingrich can give speeches, get a little attention. with the field in such flux, why should somebody drop out now when it's possible lightning could strike on them? the race isn't settled. we is see a lot of fluidity. i don't think anybody will drop out in the long term.

    >> as long as you don't

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