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Michele Bachmann tries to grow beyond niche candidate

While looking good in the polls, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann is still considered by many to be a niche candidate appealing mostly to Tea Partiers and social conservatives. But she seems to be working to expand her political appeal, says the Los Angeles Times.

Says the story:

Bachmann is clearly trying to make the leap from cable TV grenade-thrower. Although still defiantly opposing a hike in the nation’s debt ceiling, she is otherwise toning down her rhetoric — when discussing her anti-abortion views, she paused to say she didn’t mean to condemn women who have had an abortion. She made similar conciliatory remarks about Muslims and China, two targets this year of GOP campaigns.

And her campaign, too, is trying to convey the image of general election juggernaut rather than understaffed primary campaign. Her events tend to be lush — expensive and well-produced with professional lights and sound. They are also tightly managed: In Muscatine, a staffer kicked out a supporter of Texas Rep. Ron Paul who was subtly handing out a flier comparing their congressional records.

And the challenges will mount:

Bachmann now faces critical tests — increased scrutiny of her record and the potential entry of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who could present stiff competition for the “tea party” activists and socially conservative voters who power Bachmann’s effort. And, in less than three weeks, there is Ames, for her a vital early test of campaign organization. Many political insiders in Iowa say expectations have risen so high for Bachmann that she must win or be branded a failure.

“She is teetering dangerously close to that edge, if she has not gone over the cliff yet,” said one unaligned Republican operative who spoke anonymously to protect relations with the candidate.

And Bachmann has some obstacles, in preparing for the Aug. 13 Ames Straw Poll:

Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who has been campaigning for months here, faces a do-or-die test and is blanketing Republican households with fliers and phone calls and busing supporters to the event site in order to boost his numbers. Paul’s acolytes are also expected to turn out in force.

With a fervor that has hardened since earlier this month, Bachmann’s campaign is ratcheting up its effort to draw supporters to Ames. Her staffers are signing up voters who attend her events, plugging their phone numbers and email addresses into iPads. Republican households are receiving unsolicited emails from Bachmann asking them to “meet me in Ames.” The campaign is also paying the $30 entry fee for supporters to attend.

But the contest is not for the faint-hearted, as it takes place partly outdoors in triple-digit heat and competes with the hugely popular state fair and a well-attended sweet corn festival nearby. And while voters are receptive to Bachmann’s small-government message, many said it was too early to decide.

“She’s a great speaker. I love all of her ideas… We need to live within our means,” said Melissa Steinke, 47, pulling a small notebook from her handbag to check her notes after hearing Bachmann speak in a gilded hotel ballroom in Davenport. “Fiscal conservative, peace through strength, social conservative.”

There’s work to be done:

 But many political strategists and voters are in wait-and-see mode. They suggest that her campaign has held too many made-for-TV events — going to county fairs where the candidate coos over children while the shutters snap — rather than those in which she interacts with voters. On a recent swing, Bachmann tried to allay those criticisms, regularly taking questions and greeting every voter who waited to see her. But some still wonder.

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