U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann returned to Washington DC Friday to vote on the balanced budget amendment, after spending most of the week campaigning in Iowa. Bachmann has been sharpening her message as the self-described "only true conservative" in the Republican race for president.
As most of the other GOP candidates ramp up their Iowa operations in advance of that state's Jan. 3, 2012 caucuses, many party members say it's still too early to commit to a candidate.
Throughout the turbulent Republican nomination battle to choose a candidate to run against President Barack Obama in the November 2012 election, there has been only one constant -- Mitt Romney is one of the top candidates. All of the others have been vying to be the alternative to Romney, and it's far from certain who that Romney alternative will be.
If you ask likely Iowa Republican caucus goers who they're supporting, many will say they just don't know yet.
"I think there's a lot to be decided. We're waiting to see, get to know the candidates better," said Sharon Perry of Webster City, Iowa, who was shopping on Main Street earlier in the week.
Webster City is about an hour north of Des Moines. Last year, Electrolux closed manufacturing plants here, costing 1,500 jobs. For Perry, concern about the economy is at the forefront.
"I think we need someone that's a business person, that can get us out of the messes we're in right now."
Right across the street, Michele Bachmann was promoting her campaign at a local restaurant.
"We're going to end welfare payments to illegal aliens," Bachmann told the standing-room only crowd. "Go to these caucuses. Be my representative there and we will take this country back in 2012." Many of those in the audience seemed to like what they heard -- but remain undecided.
Becky Kepler is a county Republican official who helped arrange Bachmann's visit. She caucused for Romney in 2008. Now she's firmly in the anybody-but-Romney camp, although Kepler said she doesn't know which candidate she'll end up backing.
"We're just trying to get as many candidates to Webster City, Hamilton County, to let the people see them and talk to them face-to-face and kick the tires so to speak," said Kepler. "It's important that we keep this tradition going, and I think seeing somebody face to face, you get a good idea of what they're like."
Bachmann has embraced a "no surprises" strategy in her effort to become the alternative to Romney. She bills herself as the only true conservative, and claims no contradictions in her background.
Bachmann started the week with a sharp-edged campaign web video, pointing out weaknesses of many of her competitors. The video includes clips of Mitt Romney from earlier in his political career, when he supported legalized abortion.
It also highlights Texas Gov. Rick Perry's gaffe during a debate earlier this month, when he couldn't recall the name of a federal agency he said he wants to eliminate.
Following an event in Iowa earlier this week, Bachmann said her campaign's sharper tone was nothing personal, and the she wasn't "trying to be mean."
"Whether it's dealing with TARP, whether it's dealing with Obamacare, whether it's dealing with illegal immigration or any of a number of other issues, I have been the consistent constitutional conservative, and we want people to know that," Bachmann said.
Bachmann is reserving her harshest criticism for behind-the-scenes campaign efforts, like the video and a new website.
On the stump, Bachmann frequently criticizes President Obama, not her fellow Republicans, at least by name.
Long-time Iowa GOP political consultant Roger Hughes is not working for any of the presidential campaigns, but he's closely following the nomination battle. He says sharply criticizing a fellow party member in a nomination contest often backfires.
But he says in Bachmann's case, her argument is valid and she may avoid the downside because she's spreading her criticism widely.
"If there's a whole field and you disqualify the whole field, you don't necessarily get all of the blowback," said Hughes. "It's probably the wisest strategy that she can go into the field with at this time."
Bachmann will be back in Iowa Saturday for a candidate's forum. She'll then head to New York to promote her new book, "Core of Conviction, My Story."