Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann took her presidential campaign to the campus of Liberty University in Virginia Wednesday, searching for conservative Christian support in the face of flagging GOP poll numbers.
And with the Republican nomination increasingly looking like former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's to lose, Bachmann's subtext was clear: Romney is a moderate not to be trusted.
"I want to challenge you with the concept of not settling" for anything other than a true conservative, she told her audience.
The school's chancellor, Jerry Falwell, Jr., the son of the famous televangelist, said he had invited Bachmann to speak at Liberty precisely because the school's students would identify with her.
"Our students consider her to be one of us because of her background position on the limited government, tea party issues and the social issues," he said.
Bachmann worked hard to tie together her social conservatism and her economic conservatism, including this debunked claim about last year's health care law.
"Obamacare is the first time in the history of our nation that we have taxpayer subsidized abortion," she said.
An amendment to the bill forbids federal money from going towards abortions, but Bachmann's assertion struck a chord with the friendly audience in Lynchburg, as did much of her speech weaving together her brand of Christianity and her political message.
"Because I believe as believers in Jesus Christ that each of us have only one life that God has given to us, the greatest benefit we can have, so I charge you this morning, don't settle," she said.
Attendance at the speech was mandatory for students, as it was when Texas Gov. Rick Perry came to the campus a few weeks ago.
Student Miranda Bryant heard both candidates.
"I feel like Rick Perry used a lot of buzzwords," she said. "It was like, 'Liberty, whoo!' "God, whoo!' but then Michele Bachmann was legit, she really thought it out."
Bachmann's appeal straight to the heart of the religious right comes as more controversy has buffeted her campaign. In addition to declining poll numbers, there are reports that she is having trouble raising the kind of big money that's going to be needed for a long-haul presidential race. And she's come under criticism from across the political spectrum for doubling down on an unsubstantiated claim that the HPV vaccine causes mental retardation.
St. Olaf College political science professor Dan Hofrenning said that under those circumstances, it makes sense that Bachmann might intensify her efforts to turn out the evangelical vote in order to win the Iowa caucus in January. This week, her campaign also announced that Twin Cities pastor Mac Hammond would lead her religious organizing efforts. But Hofrenning said there are risks to that approach.
"It's a strategy that may cause her to move up in the polls, but I think it will reduce her long-term chances of winning the nomination," because any candidate who truly wants to win the White House will need to win moderate and independent voters who shy away from strongly religious candidates, he said.
At a press conference after the speech, Bachmann insisted her campaign is on track.
"We're the comeback kid showing that we can do it," she said. "In races you have ups, you have downs and we are on the upswing now and we can't wait to go forward and secure the nomination."
Bachmann's campaign continues this week in the Carolinas, states that are also home to large conservative evangelical communities.