DES MOINES, Iowa — Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann brought her tea party message and possible presidential ambitions to Iowa on Friday night, speaking before about 300 members of an influential anti-tax group that shares many of the Republican's views.
Bachmann was the keynote speaker at a reception in Des Moines by Iowans for Tax Relief, joining prominent Iowa Republicans including Rep. Steve King. The event came just weeks after Bachmann acknowledged she was considering seeking the Republican presidential nomination, a process that begins with the Iowa caucuses in February 2012.
In a telephone interview with The Associated Press, Bachmann said she didn't want to focus on whether she would run for president, and her evening speech focused primarily on her message that massive debt is threatening the nation's very existence.
"This current crisis we're in is bigger than Democrats or Republicans," she told the anti-tax group. "Will America endure? Tonight I think the answer is in grave doubt."
Bachman did, however, acknowledge her native state's prominence in the presidential selection process.
"It is you who launch the first precinct of the 2012 race. It will be Iowans who make that decision. I feel like I know you. I was born here, I was raised here," said Bachmann, who was born in Waterloo, Iowa, and lived there until moving as a child to neighboring Minnesota.
Ed Failor Jr., president of Iowans for Tax Relief, noted the group wasn't endorsing any potential presidential candidate, but he was excited about hosting Bachmann.
"We're an organization that has always believed that the status quo has failed us," Failor said. "Michele Bachmann is one of those people who says the status quo doesn't matter."
Bachmann also planned separate meetings with Iowa politicians, including Republican Gov. Terry Branstad and Republican state House Speaker Kraig Paulsen. The meetings indicate she could be laying the groundwork for a caucus campaign.
"It shows she wants to be a serious player in the national debate," said Branstad spokesman Tim Albrecht. "She's doing a fundraiser for a taxpayer group that's full of energized, enthused and active caucus goers. It sends a clear signal she wants in the debate."
Bachmann told the AP she came to Iowa to help focus the debate leading up to the next presidential election.
Chief among those issues is spending, she said. She argued that unless the U.S. dramatically reduces the size of government, it could face problems similar to Greece, where crushing debt has forced a bailout by other European countries. Most economists have said such a situation is extremely unlikely in the U.S., although they agree the country's debt problem is serious.
"A lot of countries got together to help Greece. If that happened to the United States – the world's largest economy – I don't know who would be there for us," Bachmann said.
The Iowa caucuses launch the presidential nominating process, offering intense media attention to the winner and often sinking candidacies of those who finish poorly. Barack Obama's surprising win in Iowa was seen as a key to his success in overcoming Hillary Clinton's advantages in name familiarity and fundraising to win the Democratic nomination.
But unlike 2008, potential candidates have so far spent less time in the state.
That could be changing. Besides Bachmann, possible candidates planning stops in Iowa in the next few weeks include former U.S. Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
Bachmann has agreed to return to Iowa in April to give a series of lectures as part of a forum organized by an evangelical Christian group that has invited a number of potential presidential candidates.
Although other politicians have longer records than Bachmann, few get as much attention as the three-term congresswoman from a largely suburban Twin Cities district. Bachmann's outspoken style and strong statements have made her a frequent guest on cable television and radio talk shows, and she has been among the most enthusiastic supporters of the tea party movement, endearing her to those activists.
Bachmann has criticized Obama and Democrats for an economic stimulus package she called an "abject failure." She also made opposition to the health care law a major talking point as her star rose along with the tea party movement.
"If we want to kill Obamacare, we must do it in 2012," she said Friday night. "We must repeal President Obama in 2012."
Given there isn't a clear front-runner for the 2012 nomination, activists said Bachmann would have a legitimate chance in the caucuses should she opt to mount a campaign.
"It's been a wide-open field," said Bob Haus, a longtime Republican strategist who worked on Fred Thompson's failed caucus campaign in 2008. "There are a lot of people who are looking at it."
Paulsen, who had planned to meet with Bachmann on Friday afternoon, said he would encourage her to spend time in Iowa.
"At this point my advice to her would be to go out and meet some people," Paulsen said. "She brings strengths to the race, but everybody brings strengths. What's unique about Iowa is you've got to go out and meet people."
Steve Scheffler, a member of the Republican National Committee and president of the Iowa Christian Alliance, said Bachmann asked to meet with him during her visit, but they couldn't arrange a time.
Scheffler described Bachman as a politician who is willing to "spell out clear positions and take the consequences" and seemed confident that he would have plenty of chances to meet with the congresswoman during future trips to Iowa.
"I'll catch up to her next time she comes through," he said.