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Campaign 2012

Bachmann avoids gay rhetoric

Economy is focus in appeal to moderates

By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / August 19, 2011

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DES MOINES - Gabe Aderhold arrived at the Iowa State Fair early, planting himself on a hay bale in front of the soapbox where Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota was scheduled to speak. The 17-year-old had driven four hours from his Minneapolis suburb to ask the presidential candidate to respond to a rash of teen suicides in her district, many of them by gay students.

Bachmann breezed onto the stage 30 minutes late and spoke for less than three. When she declined to take questions, Aderhold jumped atop the hay and shouted: “I am a second-class citizen because of you, Michele! You can’t pray the gay away.’’

Bachmann, an evangelical Christian who in the past has called homosexuality a dangerous “sexual dysfunction’’ that amounts to “personal enslavement,’’ paid no mind to the wiry, bespectacled teen in braces. Instead, she signed autographs and then sped away in a golf cart.

This was one of several instances last week in Iowa in which the Republican presidential candidate sought to tamp down - or simply refused to address - her history of hard-line rhetoric on gay issues in an effort to broaden her appeal beyond the religious right and showcase her positions on the economy and the federal budget.

Bachmann insists she has not backed away from her views on gays.

“My core principles have not deviated,’’ Bachmann said in a phone interview from the road. “What I talk about is what people are interested in out here on the campaign trail. I am not shy about talking about standing for marriage between a man and a woman, but right now the number-one thing people are focused on is the economy and job creation.’’

Although Bachmann’s stump speech before her victory in Saturday’s Ames straw poll capitalized on her leadership against same-sex marriage in Minnesota, when she was pressed to articulate her views on gay Americans during the Sunday morning news shows, she demurred.

“I’m running for the presidency of the United States. I am not running to be anyone’s judge,’’ Bachmann said on “Meet the Press.’’ “I ascribe honor and dignity to every person no matter what their background.’’

She is choosing instead to focus on the nation’s economic turmoil, casting herself as the lone voice in Congress to defy her party in her refusal to compromise on her opposition to raising the debt ceiling.

Bachmann, 55, has achieved political notoriety for her uncompromising views. With her candidacy buoyed by the straw poll win, her challenge now is to parlay that momentum on the national stage and dispel the image some moderate Republicans have of her as a fringe candidate.

She also must distinguish herself from Governor Rick Perry of Texas, a formidable opponent with a following among Tea Partiers and religious conservatives that rivals Bachmann’s. His entry into the race on the same day as the straw poll cast a shadow over her win.

On the campaign trail last week in Iowa, she tried to embrace the role of religion in her life without coming across as a zealot. During the GOP debate in Ames, she recast her past comments on how Christian wives should be submissive to their husbands as expressions of mutual respect in her own 33-year marriage to Marcus Bachmann, her college sweetheart.

The Sunday before the straw poll, Bachmann attended the Point of Grace Church, an evangelical megachurch with a 2,000-strong congregation in Waukee, just outside Des Moines. The pastor, Jeff Mullen, praised her well-worn Bible - “It wasn’t a come-to-Jesus moment right before running,’’ he said - as Bachmann, standing at the front of the packed church, read a verse.

Moments later, the lights dimmed for a video testimonial from a “straight man who used to be gay.’’ The man is married now, his wife pregnant. Gays deserve to be in hell, he said, and he claimed to be living proof that gays could be made straight through prayer.

Marcus Bachmann’s Christian counseling center has drawn fire for trying to “cure’’ gay patients - an issue Bachmann has tried to distance herself from as her star has risen.

After the service, a parishioner with tears streaming down her cheeks approached the congresswoman.

“We need to get God as leader of the country,’’ Robin Murphy of West Des Moines told the candidate. “I don’t like what I see in Obama - him being born in Kenya and trying to cover up the birth certificate thing. And him being Muslim and trying to pretend he’s a Christian.’’

Bachmann received her warmly, leaning in close to listen and clutching the woman’s hands in her own for several minutes.

A previously scheduled press availability was abruptly canceled, allowing her to avoid questions about the video testimonial during the service. A Bachmann spokeswoman said it was because she was running behind.

Spending even a minute addressing her controversial religious viewpoints does the candidate no good, given voters’ desire to hear solutions to jobs and the economy, said Washington-based Republican pollster David Winston.

“She is not where she needs to be to win the nomination at this point, so she’s got to figure out the best way to grow that support,’’ Winston said. “There’s a recognition that if she goes to topic number two for even a second, especially if it’s a very controversial topic, then that’s what everyone thinks she talked about 100 percent of the time.’’

It is easy to see Bachmann’s appeal. Energetic and vibrant, she gets crowds fired up and is adored by many of her supporters. People routinely thank her for being a strong Christian role model.

Her handlers have become adept at building anticipation at her appearances and carefully orchestrating her entrances. Not until a large enough crowd has assembled does she emerge from her blue, flag-adorned bus, which routinely lingers around the bend, hazard lights flashing, until it is show time. Like a rock star, she travels with her own lighting and sound crew, strutting onstage to Elvis Presley and patriotic music blaring from speakers.

In response to Perry’s arrival in Iowa the day after her climactic win there, she tried to fight back with a little one-upsmanship of her own. She belatedly got on the program to speak at a county GOP fund-raising dinner in her birth city of Waterloo, which Perry had been headlining.

She arrived late to the historic dance hall, missing Perry’s entire speech. Her bus inched toward the parking lot as the governor fielded questions from the audience. Then with the lights brightening and her theme music cued, Bachmann was introduced over the sound system as “the next president of the United States.’’ Several minutes passed, but still no Bachmann.

The crowd, confused by the delay, gave her a lukewarm welcome when she appeared. She thanked them for cementing her victory and promised to be a bold, new, different kind of president. She never acknowledged Perry, who listened politely from the second row.

Instead of taking questions, she brought out what she billed as the “biggest, fattest, deepest apple pie’’ and awarded it to the oldest Republican mother in the room, a 100-year-old named Mary. Elvis blasted over the loudspeakers. Her campaign staff began throwing out Bachmann T-shirts. She whipped out a Sharpie pen to sign autographs. Diners surged toward the stage.

A local GOP leader took to the podium and awkwardly tried to regain control of the crowd and close out the event. “Governor Perry’s still here,’’ he said into the microphone.

But Perry was on his way out the back door.

“You happy now? I’m not happy about that,’’ Scott Adkins, cochairman of the Black Hawk County Republicans, said angrily to Bachmann’s staff as he stepped off the stage.

They could hardly hear him. The music was too loud.

Tracy Jan can be reached at tjan@globe.com.