MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Michele Bachmann is feeling both the glow and the heat of the national spotlight this week. The GOP candidate is surging in national polls, gaining on frontrunner Mitt Romney. But that good news has been overshadowed to some degree by a series of reports about chronic migraine attacks that are so severe that they have lead to hospitalization.
Both the polls and the increased scrutiny are signs that Michele Bachmann is now seen as a serious GOP presidential contender. And so we're going to spend a little time now looking into her background. And to do that, we're joined by Larry Jacobs. He's director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota. Welcome to the program.
Professor LARRY JACOBS (Director, Center for the Study of Politics and Governance): Good to be with you.
NORRIS: Now, first a bit of background. Michele Bachmann was born as Michele Amble in Waterloo, Iowa. I want you give us a quick biographical sketch of her early life before politics. And I guess a political story that reaches back to Iowa is convenient for a presidential contender.
Prof. JACOBS: Michele Bachmann has genuine roots in Iowa, where she spent a good part of her childhood. She then moved on to Minnesota, where she went to law school, became a tax attorney.
One of the things that's really striking about her development as a person was her commitment to her family, and the large number of foster children that she brought into her family and helped to raise.
NORRIS: How did she become such a strong political force in such a short period of time?
Prof. JACOBS: One of the most striking features about Michele Bachmann is that from her very first race, she's been at war not only with Democrats but with many Republicans. So, when she ran for office for the Minnesota State Senate, she took on and defeated the longtime serving Republican incumbent. And then when she went on to battle for the nomination for the congressional seat that she currently holds, she had to take on better known, better-funded establishment Republicans to win that seat.
Each time she did it by mobilizing a base of support within the social conservative movement who were ferociously supportive of her, who saw her as authentic.
NORRIS: For conservatives, part of her appeal is her voting record. So let's talk a little bit about that. What is her legislative record? What kinds of bills has she introduced? What committees does she serve on?
Prof. JACOBS: When she first came into the legislature in Washington, she had supersized media staff - larger than some of the more veteran staffs because she saw her particular role in being a voice for a hard-edged conservatism within the country and within the Republican Party.
So I don't really think she has much of a legislative record as a pioneer. She certainly signed on to legislation, but she's not a legislative specialist, someone who's been a workhorse in putting together a corpus of accomplishment.
NORRIS: I want to ask you about the chronic migraine attacks. What do we know about them? How severe are they and how often has she been hospitalized? How many votes has she missed?
Prof. JACOBS: We don't have a lot of information about it. There've been probably about a half a dozen incidents that are on record where she would miss part of a day of votes. Or she, at one point, was out for four days leading her to miss some votes, and then miss some schedule events.
It appears that the most recent of these attacks was in 2010. But we don't really know, I think, how severe they are and how frequently she's been getting them and whether they are now - as the campaign is suggesting - under control through medication.
NORRIS: Do people underestimate Michele Bachmann?
Prof. JACOBS: Michele Bachmann may be the most underestimated candidate in the Republican field right now. I think there's a tendency not to take her seriously. But I've seen are now carve out a leadership role in Congress on the national scene.
This is a very sophisticated, smart, political strategist. And as I look at the calendar, it looks to me as if this is a Michele Bachmann calendar, in which she could very do well win the Iowa Caucuses, and broadening her message to a fiscal conservative, libertarian message that will to her quite well in New Hampshire. And as she moves down to South Carolina, if she were able to do well and win Iowa and New Hampshire, I think she could well be the frontrunner.
NORRIS: Larry Jacobs, good to talk to you again. Thanks so much.
Prof. JACOBS: Good to be with you.
NORRIS: Larry Jacobs is director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the Hubert Humphrey Institute at the University of Minnesota. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.