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Bigger threat to Michele Bachmann: Media scrutiny or Rick Perry?

There’s no doubt about it, a month after entering the presidential race, Michele Bachmann has momentum. The Minnesota congresswoman has surged to second place in the latest national poll of GOP voters on their party’s nomination. And she now places first in polls of Iowa Republicans, whose caucuses early next year will play a critical role in winnowing the field.

But with success comes scrutiny. And Congresswoman Bachmann now faces what every candidate with buzz goes through: swarms of reporters and opposition researchers going through every nook and cranny of her life, and her husband’s life, looking for anything that might shed light on who she is and what kind of leader she might be.

Among the recent news items:

A hidden-camera report on ABC’s “Nightline” on Marcus Bachmann, the candidate’s husband, that showed his Christian counseling center had engaged in the controversial practice of trying to convert gay people into becoming straight. Mr. Bachmann had said in the past that his treatment centers do not engage in that practice. Both Bachmanns have not addressed the ABC report.

A report in the Los Angeles Times that found the Bachmann counseling business had received $30,000 over five years from the state of Minnesota, money that comes partly from the federal government. Also, the report said, a family farm in Wisconsin had received $260,000 in federal farm subsidies. The congresswoman, a tea party favorite, advocates reduced federal spending.

A report by the news site MinnPost, a member of the Investigative News Network, that found six letters Bachmann had written to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood seeking federal stimulus money for projects in Minnesota. This, after Bachmann had opposed the Obama administration’s $830 billion stimulus package in 2009.

In an interview with the Minneapolis Star Tribune last November, Bachmann argued that transportation projects should not be called earmarks. And her defenders say that it would be irresponsible for a member of Congress not to seek available federal funding for legitimate projects in his or her district. Critics charge hypocrisy.

The larger question – whether the enhanced scrutiny will give GOP voters pause – remains open. People who would be upset by the allegations about her husband’s counseling business may not be Bachmann fans in the first place. And it’s easy to argue that members of Congress should operate within the current system to benefit their constituents even as they try to change the system.

In addition, Bachmann has had problems with misstatements. In March she asserted that the Revolutionary War battles of Lexington and Concord took place in New Hampshire. More recently, she stated that the Founding Fathers had fought slavery.

Factual inaccuracies are something “that ultimately goes to trust, so it’s not something that can be ignored,” says Jennifer Duffy, an analyst at the Cook Political Report. “You don’t want to become a punchline.”

Ultimately, though, a bigger challenge to Bachmann’s new status as the top conservative challenger to front-runner Mitt Romney is the potential candidacy of Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Governor Perry, like Bachmann, is charismatic, popular with the tea party movement, and a proven fundraiser. And his résumé is far more typical of a successful presidential candidate: longtime governor of a big state. In US history, only one sitting House member has been elected president.

Perry also is the only potential candidate in the field who bridges the establishment and tea party wings of the Republican Party – and thus could harness the energy and money of Republicans in a way that Mr. Romney may not be able to.

Signals from people who know Perry point to an increasing likelihood that he will run, but his political advisers say a decision is still weeks away. Iowa polls have not included Perry, but national polls have – and the numbers are encouraging to him. The newest survey, released Wednesday by the Quinnipiac University Polling Center in Hamden, Conn., places Perry in fourth place with 10 percent, behind Romney (25), Bachmann (14), and Sarah Palin (12). Former Alaska Gov. Palin has also not announced her intentions, but seems less likely to run than Perry.

In Iowa, the Real Clear Politics average of recent statewide polls of Republicans shows Bachmann in the lead with 25 percent, followed by Romney at 20 percent. The others, all declared candidates, are in single digits.

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