Most eyes will be on Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich during tonight's debate on Fox News Channel. But I'll be watching Michele Bachmann.
Bachmann's support in the polls has fallen precipitously since she won the Ames Straw Poll in August. She's been relegated to the sidelines as Rick Perry, Herman Cain, and now Newt Gingrich have stormed the field. She's neck-and-neck with Rick Perry for fourth place in polls of voters in Iowa and nationwide. But I can't help suspecting that Bachmann may pick up support in the coming weeks.
The social conservatives who make up the Republican grassroots find themselves in a peculiar situation. Practically all of the Republican candidates (with the exception of asterisk Gary Johnson) are pro-life and oppose same-sex marriage. All but Ron Paul are strong supporters of Israel. Yet the top contenders at the moment, Romney and Gingrich, have had problems with values voters in the past. Neither man is known as a culture warrior. They'd rather talk about the economy or brain science than the right to life.
But the values vote is split in Iowa. Add the support of Bachmann, Perry, and Santorum together, and the mythical, hybrid social conservative that results is neck-and-neck with Newt and Mitt. Can we truly dismiss the possibility that the non-frontrunner values vote will rally around one standard-bearer as January 3 approaches?
Back in 2003, Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt demolished each other in Iowa, opening a path for John Kerry to win the Democratic nomination. A similar dynamic may be taking place in 2011, with Gingrich and Romney standing in for Dean and Gephardt. If she turns in a dynamic and effective performance at the final debate, Bachmann will be well positioned for the final weeks of the invisible campaign. She's an energetic and dogged activist for conservative causes. Her flirtation with vaccine conspiracy theories is behind her. She's against bailouts and has consistently made the repeal of Obamacare the focus of her campaign. No one will ever doubt her social conservatism. Plus Mark Steyn is a fan.
Sure, she's behind in money. So was Mike Huckabee. And sure, the Bachmann stock may be trading low at the moment. Maybe that means it's a good time to buy.