BRIAN BAKST, Associated Press
DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) -- Desperate for a late lift in Iowa, Republican Michele Bachmann is increasingly stressing a distinction in the presidential field: She's the only woman competing for the nomination.
The Minnesota congresswoman has made the gender card central to her closing argument. She's urging voters to embrace the idea of a "strong woman in the White House" and is molding herself as "America's Iron Lady" in the vein of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
It's a play that carries as much risk as potential reward because some of the ardent religious conservatives she's aggressively courting have traditional views about gender roles.
History is not on Bachmann's side, either. Iowa has never elected a woman as governor or to its congressional delegation, a footnote shared only with Mississippi.
It was only a few years ago when GOP presidential nominee John McCain energized his campaign by putting Sarah Palin on the ticket, inspiring a hot pink-shirted army of voters the folksy former Alaska governor affectionately coined "mamma grizzlies." Palin opted out of the 2012 race and so far isn't pushing her followers in any direction.
Bachmann seldom underscored gender early in her campaign. She would sprinkle in mentions of motherhood and even shared an emotional story about how a miscarriage fortified her anti-abortion views. But she was mostly content letting voters notice the obvious difference on their own as she stood on debate stages surrounded by a bunch of men.
But as Bachmann darted around Iowa in the hectic days before Tuesday's caucuses, she hit the woman theme hard.
"I'm an Iowa girl. And one thing I remember about Iowa is we are a state of strong women," Bachmann told the lunch crowd at a 50s-themed burger joint in Mount Ayr. "We need a strong woman to turn this country around, right?"
Longtime residents Margaret Bickers and Mary Davenport, sitting in a booth near Bachmann, nodded in agreement.
"Women are just more passionate than the men," Bickers told a reporter. "We need a woman who is not afraid to vocalize that passion and effect change."
"It takes a woman to get things done," Davenport chimed in. Both said they were inclined to caucus for Bachmann.
Bachmann dispenses warm hugs as readily as simple handshakes. She'll sometimes run her hand along another woman's back during conversations, extended contact her male challengers tend to avoid.
When a 90-year-old woman shared that she was a mother of 12, Bachmann crouched by her side to hear more. "What a blessing," the candidate said.
It gave Bachmann an opening to share a favorite biographical detail, that she's a mother of five and foster parent to 23 more. While conveying her philosophy of government cost-cutting, she often tries to connect with fellow women by describing herself as the family coupon clipper who frequents consignment shops for clothes.
Tamara Scott, who runs the Iowa chapter of Concerned Women for America, tagged along on Bachmann's recent 99-county tour and served as the warm-up act during several stops. Scott highlighted Bachmann's role as a mother to many as evidence of compassion but also stressed the congresswoman's give-no-ground debate performances as proof of her toughness.
"Gutsy has never been so gorgeous," Scott told one audience.
Still, Union County GOP chairwoman Yvonne Kinkade suspects Bachmann could have trouble breaking through in farm country because she's a woman.
"I've noticed that when her name is mentioned sometimes that there's a lot of men that wouldn't vote for a woman," said Kinkade, who counted herself among the undecided after visits by a few candidates this past week. "A lot of them are the head of the households in these farming communities."
Bachmann advisers say her recent reliance on the Thatcher comparison is meant in part to remind voters of a prominent woman on the world stage, particularly a staunch ally of Ronald Reagan. Plus, Bachmann just finished reading a Thatcher biography.
Bachmann's approach to the gender issue stands in contrast to Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton four years ago. Clinton largely played it down, favoring pantsuits over skirts and stressing instead her experience and resolve.
"I'm not running as a woman. I'm running because I think I'm the best qualified and experienced person for president," she often told campaign audiences.
When Clinton dropped out of the 2008 race, only then did she acknowledge the historic nature of her candidacy.
"Although we weren't able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it has about 18 million cracks in it and the light is shining through like never before," she said in her concession speech, referring to the 18 million votes she received during the primaries.
Bachmann looked primed to shatter Iowa's glass ceiling in August when she won the Iowa GOP's straw poll. But her standing tumbled soon after and she has struggled to recover that summer magic.
Associated Press writer Beth Fouhy contributed to this report.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.