The jury's still out. That's how I feel about Michele Bachmann's campaign for president, and I don't think I'm alone in feeling conflicted about her. Women have been pulling me aside for months, asking me what I think of her. Some say she's the candidate Sarah Palin should have been; others feel "burned" by Palin and dismiss Bachmann as a result. "I'm not falling for that again," one told me over dinner, as others nodded in agreement. If Michele Bachmann wants to win over fence-sitting voters like me, here are a few things she could do to be taken more seriously. [Read more from Mary Kate Cary, Mort Zuckerman, and other U.S. News columnists and commentators. Subscribe to U.S. News Weekly.]
Focus on fiscal conservatism. Bachmann is a former tax lawyer who worked at the IRS, a three-term member of Congress, and a former Minnesota state senator. While she doesn't have executive experience, she can talk tax policy with the best of them. Shortly before the Republican debate in New Hampshire, economist Stephen Moore interviewed her for the Wall Street Journal, and she came across as serious and well-versed in modern economics. When Moore asked her who she reads on the subject, she listed Milton Friedman, Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, and Arthur Laffer.
"And [Ludwig] von Mises. I love von Mises," she said, citing his classics Human Action and Bureaucracy. "When I go on vacation and I lay on the beach, I bring von Mises." That's a far cry from Sarah Palin's response to Katie Couric's question about which newspapers she reads. [Check out editorial cartoons about Palin.] With the dollar falling, consumer prices up, unemployment stuck at 9 percent, and sluggish consumer confidence, Bachmann should be constantly talking about ways to create growth and prosperity for families like hers. Poll after poll shows that voters are most concerned about reducing the deficit without raising taxes—something she can speak on with authority. Best thing she did in the Journal interview: endorse a Jack Kemp-like economic platform. "In my perfect world," she explained, "we'd take the 35 percent corporate tax rate down to 9 so that we're the most competitive in the industrialized world. Zero out capital gains. Zero out the alternative minimum tax. Zero out the death tax." More gaffe-free print interviews with serious policy wonks would be a good idea. Maybe she should agree to be interviewed by the Economist next. [Vote now: Can Michele Bachmann win the 2012 GOP nomination?]
Keep talking about the kids. Speaking of families, Bachmann should continue to weave in stories about her children whenever she can. She's got five of her own, and has taken in 23 foster kids over the years—some for as short as a week, some as long as three years. Here's the best part: They're all teenage girls. As the mother of two teenage girls, I can tell you this says volumes about Bachmann's character and her patience. It also speaks to what motivates her in life. No matter what they think of her politically, most women with whom I've spoken react very positively when they learn of her foster kids. It makes her more "real" than the men she's running against, more sympathetic to what families of all sizes are going through these days.
Stay away from Fox News. Unlike Sarah Palin, Bachmann is not paid as a Fox News commentator. But she's on the network quite a bit, and it may be one of the reasons why so many people closely identify the two women. She'd be wise to separate herself from Palin and make more appearances on networks where she'll face tougher questioning. Instead of Fox, she might try MSNBC's Morning Joe—she'd win skeptics over for going on a liberal network, but would likely get treated with more respect than she would on The Ed Show. Plus, Morning Joe has a cult following among the kind of political operatives she'd need in the general election. [Vote now: Will Bachmann's gaffes end her presidential chances?]
Lose the lashes. Bachmann's false eyelashes were the first thing many women noticed in the New Hampshire debate, and some found them completely distracting. Body language expert Carol Kinsey Goman recently analyzed Bachmann's body language for the Washington Post, and gave her high marks for her nonverbal cues conveying her warmth and authority. But, Goman writes, "Bachmann's only body language error may have been a cosmetic one: her decision to wear false eyelashes. Researchers who analyze politicians' blink rate find that fast blinkers rarely win elections. Blink rates increase under stress, and they signal a candidate's nonverbal reaction to pressure. While [Mitt] Romney has a fairly low blink rate, Bachmann has a moderately high one, and the false eyelashes she wore during the debate made her blinks much more obvious than those of her competitors." Her high heels helped her appear taller alongside the men—which is good, according to Goman—but the eyelashes worked against her. Sure, it's a superficial thing, but when you're introducing yourself to voters, why send a subtle signal that you're stressed out? [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the 2012 GOP primary.]
Focus on independent voters. Polls show that Bachmann is extremely popular with social conservatives. She should take a page from Romney's playbook and think about how she's going to win over independent voters next. Bachmann's support among her base of Tea Partyers is deep, but if she wants to win, she's going to have to widen the pool to include independents and less conservative Republicans. She seemed to do that with her New Hampshire debate performance and the Wall Street Journal interview. If she wants to widen her appeal, the best thing she can do is convince voters that she's not the "extremist" the left makes her out to be, but rather a thoughtful, mainstream candidate who can win a general election against Barack Obama. Whether she is such a candidate remains to be seen.
That's why the jury's still out.