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.
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.
"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.
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.