It was late June 2011, and Rep. Michele Bachmann was back in her native Waterloo, Iowa the day before formally launching her presidential campaign.
"Welcome home, Waterloo," Bachmann told the crowd.
"My name is Michele Bachmann and tomorrow I am going to announce that I'm running for the presidency of the United State of America!"
Fast-forward to six months later and some-$12 million spent, Bachmann dropped out of the race after a near last-place finish in the Iowa Caucuses. But through the press, nationally televised debates and a ground campaign that extended through Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, Bachmann's message — aimed at tea party movement and social conservatives alike — reached more Americans than ever before.
Since her last run for re-election, Bachmann has taken her political profile to new levels. On top of numerous television interviews and national speaking engagements, Bachmann's decision to jump into the presidential race raised her image and brought increased scrutiny.
The way Ron Eibensteiner tells it, Bachman, got her political start in 2000, almost by accident. Eibensteiner chaired the Minnesota GOP party from 1999 to 2005. He was looking for someone to challenge long-time incumbent Gary Laidig, and contacted Bachmann. She was noncommittal about running, he recalled. But at the party's nominating convention, Eibensteiner said Laidig's speech was not well received by many people at the convention.
"They huddled around Michele and encouraged her to run," Eibensteiner said. "I'm sure she had thought about it but she was not really prepared, and so she threw her hat in the ring and won on the first ballot.
"And one thing led to another and today she is a very successful congressman with a wide following."
Others who have watched Bachmann's career say her entry, and nearly every move since then, has been more calculated it may seem. Undisputed is an enormous national following and fundraising base that Bachmann has cultivated. In October, Bachmann's campaign announced she raised $4.5 million from July through September.
For now, Bachmann appears to have toned down her national profile, turning her attention towards winning a fourth term in Congress.
Following a campaign event in St. Cloud earlier this month, Bachmann named some of the things she has done for the 6th District during her last term.
"Probably the main thing would be the passing of the Stillwater bridge crossing. That hadn't been done for decades," Bachmann said. "But I also did the same with the Veterans' Clinic in Ramsey. And I was able to get that built."
The last time Bachmann ran for Congress, the tea party movement was on the rise and in July 2010 Bachmann formed the House Tea Party caucus. Born out of frustration over the bank bailout and the federal stimulus package, the movement supported a new type of fiscally conservative Republican and rallied around what it saw as out of control government spending and growing national debt. In a matter of months, Bachmann's views were suddenly more mainstream and she quickly became an influential leader within the movement.
Following the election, Bachmann sought to leverage her tea party credentials into a committee leadership position, saying candidates like her were instrumental in the GOP's takeover of the House. At that time, Washington observers said it was the first real test of how the established GOP was going to treat the tea party wing of the party.
But the congresswoman's bid was snubbed by House Majority Leader John Boehner and their relationship has been uneasy since.
Boehner was among those from both sides of the aisle who criticized Bachmann for comments about the Muslim Brotherhood's influence over the federal government.
MORE CAMPAIGN 2012 COVERAGE
• Select a Candidate: See where they stand
• The races: Coverage of presidential, congressional and senate races
• Marriage Amendment: Stories, discussions, commentaries
• Voter ID Amendment: Stories, discussions, commentaries
• PoliGraph: Campaign fact-checks
A StarTribune poll released this week gave Bachmann a six-point lead over her DFL opponent and hospitality executive Jim Graves. The poll also shows that while Bachmann maintains high recognition, there are almost as many people in the 6th District who dislike her as those who like her.
Such polarized responses have a lot to do with her national profile, said Steven Schier, a professor of political science at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn.
"She's not one of these legislators who really works with the minutia with legislation and builds a reputation through committee work and floor work," Schier said. "She's much more interested in addressing the national debate in a way that grabs public attention. And I just think that's going to be her style as long as she's in public office."
Two years ago, Bachmann raised about $13.5 million for her congressional campaign and won by nearly 13 percentage points.
• Follow Conrad Wilson on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/conradjwilson