Republican presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann, riding a wave of Tea Party excitement over her strong showing in a new Iowa caucus poll and a round of national media appearances, has conspicuously altered the early race for the GOP nomination.
Just ask the Minnesota congresswoman's home state rival for the GOP crown, former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who, despite dogged organizing in Iowa and efforts to improve his own national profile, has so far failed to find a receptive audience.
But whether Bachmann's rapid rise from largely unknown conservative provocateur, whom opponents accuse of having a penchant for prevaricating, to top-tier GOP contender can be sustained over time is decidedly hazy.
The first hard measure may come as early as July 15, when the candidates' money-raising acumen will be laid bare in their second-quarter Federal Election Commission finance reports.
"You have to say that she's a phenomenon," says Iowa pollster J. Ann Selzer, whose survey results published Sunday in the Des Moines Register showed Bachmann and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney as the clear favorites of Iowa's likely Republican caucus-goers.
Romney was the pick of 23 percent of those polled; Bachmann was the pick of 22 percent. Pawlenty was the top choice of 6 percent, running behind businessman Herman Cain, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Rep. Ron Paul.
"Usually, at this early stage, it's only people with name recognition who register [with voters], and she's already got that," Selzer says. "But it has happened so fast that she's not been fire-tested."
"She will be now."
Bachmann and Pawlenty have staked their presidential hopes on traction in Iowa. Romney, who lost the 2008 caucus in an endgame surge by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, sees better opportunities in the early contests in New Hampshire and Nevada.
The fire-testing began in earnest over the past several days.
Bachmann was tagged Monday for referring to her home town of Waterloo, Iowa, where she made her formal run announcement, as the birthplace of movie actor John Wayne.
The actor actually was born in Winterset, Iowa, about 150 miles southwest of Waterloo. John Wayne Gacy, the notorious serial killer, made Waterloo his home for a few years in the 1960s.
Bachmann was also peppered with questions about her veracity during an interview on CBS News. On Fox News, she was asked whether she's "a flake." (It was question that Amy Kremer of the Tea Party Express characterized to NPR as one that "would not have been asked of any male candidate.")
And a Los Angeles Times story tallied up $30,000 in government funding that it said Bachmann and her husband have received for their Minnesota counseling business, as well as $260,000 in federal agriculture subsidies it said were issued to a Bachmann family farm in Wisconsin once owned by her late father-in-law.
But those who predict that Bachmann, who founded the House Tea Party Caucus, will burn brightly and briefly should pause, says Kristen Soltis, policy research director at The Winston Group, which advises Republicans.
"Bachmann's strong rise shows the importance of message and connecting with a core constituency," says Soltis. "She has exceeded expectations of those who thought she'd already falter in the bright lights."
"She's shown that she's willing to play ball," she says. "I would not count anybody out at this stage."
Says Kremer, of the Tea Party Express: "Michele Bachmann is a strong constitutional conservative who has been a large, strong voice out there, on the front lines from the early days."
Counting out a candidate who in 2010 shattered national fundraising records for an individual in a U.S. House race may also give prognosticators pause.
On July 15, presidential candidates will file their money reports with the FEC for the second quarter of 2011. Bachmann's report will show little, since her notice of a formal run was only received by the FEC on June 11.
But, says, Anthony J. Corrado Jr., an expert on campaign finance at Colby College, look at what Bachmann has collected for her congressional campaign committee during the first half of the year.
Money she has been raising for that committee, Corrado told NPR's Peter Overby, can be transferred to her presidential committee — just as then-Sen. Hillary Clinton transferred $10 million from her Senate campaign committee to her ultimately unsuccessful 2008 White House run.
The early money numbers, Corrado told NPR, help set front-runner expectations, and many will be looking closely at how much support Romney, the unsuccessful 2008 candidate who is now the early GOP favorite, has attracted.
But, Corrado said, "it will be very interesting to see how Michele Bachmann does in attracting funds," given that she raised a record $13.5 million for her 2010 contest.
That haul was "$3 million more than the speaker of the House raised, which is extraordinary," he says.
The average amount raised by a House member in the same cycle was under $2 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money in politics.
Fifty-five percent of Bachmann's haul in 2009-2010 came from small donors, according to the center.
It is unclear whether Bachmann can ultimately draw on big givers and bundlers, crucial to building the kind of war chest necessary to take on an incumbent president without a primary challenger.
Too Hot, Too Soon?
There is a real danger in getting too hot, too soon, Selzer says, quoting former Des Moines Register political writer David Yepsen's maxim: "Organize, organize, organize, and get hot at the end."
In 2004, for example, the relatively unknown John Edwards got hot in the final days leading up to the caucuses and pulled off a surprise second-place finish.
That sort of scenario could work to Pawlenty's advantage. He may not be polling as a favorite in Iowa, but people don't dislike him.
The Iowa poll showed that Romney has a high unfavorable rating.
One aspect of the polling that struck Selzer, she says, was that of the 65 percent of those polled who viewed Bachmann favorably, almost half responded that they saw her in a very favorable light.
That signifies an intensity of feeling that has been driving the Minnesota congresswoman's fast rise, but also suggests volatility in her support base.
Debates are still to be held, Soltis says, and money is still to be raised.
"And we're not even sure if the Republican presidential field is even set yet," she says.
The Tea Party's Kremer agrees, mentioning Sarah Palin and Texas Gov. Rick Perry as potential candidates.
"I don't think all the players are on the field yet," Kremer says. "But whoever gets the nomination will have to do it with the support of the Tea Party."
But this is certainly Bachmann's moment, whether it's fleeting, or the launch of a formidable candidate.