U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn.
U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn. REUTERS

In a presidential campaign likely to be a referendum on President Obama's economic management, GOP hopeful Michele Bachmann's gay rights views -- and the seemingly regular fallout they generate -- could make or break her presidential push.

A cascade of news coverage detailing Bachmann's ardent opposition to same-sex marriage and her long record of far-right social conservatism serves as a constant distraction from her Tea Party-approved message of cutting costs and scaling back government. As New York's legalization of same-sex marriage brings the issue back into the national conversation, gay rights groups plan to keep Bachmann on the defensive.

Michele Bachmann is the very definition of a target-rich environment, and given her husband's positions and things she's said in the past she's going to have a really hard time appearing as a reasonable mainstream candidate, Michael Cole-Schwartz, the communications director for the group Human Rights Campaign, told Politico. We're going to be looking for opportunities to get her record and her rhetoric out there.

Bachmann recently endured a barrage of criticism after she signed a socially conservative organization's pro-marriage pledge suggesting that African-American families were more stable when slavery was legal. She was one of only two GOP candidates to sign the pledge, re-enforcing her status as the leading Republican candidate on social issues.

Her husband Marcus' Christian counseling center has also come under scrutiny for allegedely promoting reparative therapy, a form of counseling that seeks to make gay people renounce their sexual orientation and become heterosexual. Bachmann's husband has parried criticisms, maintaining that we don't have an agenda or a philosophy of trying to change someone and saying a previous comment comparing gay people to barbarians [that] need to be educated had been taken out of context.

The idea of some sort of a therapy to make us straight -- it's bizarre and nuts, David Mixner, a top gay Democratic fundraiser, told Politico. For those who are somewhat disenchanted on some issues with Obama, this will enable them to get over whatever reservations they may have.

Bachmann also has a history of issuing controversial statements about homosexuality -- she once compared it to personal bondage, personal despair and personal enslavement -- and her opposition to same-sex marriage was a powerful motivating force in her early career as a Minnesota state senator. Her politics are also deeply intertwined with her Christian faith. That combination of religion and staunch conservatism on social issues gives her strong appeal for the large blocs of evangelical voters in Iowa, particularly if they feel Bachmann is being unfairly vilifed on the left (already, Bachmann's defenders have cast her as the victim of Christian-bashing and religious bigotry).

The more that they attack Michele Bachmann on these grounds, the better her chances of winning the Iowa caucuses are, said Maggie Gallagher, the president of the National Organization for Marriage. The Iowa base is extremely upset about same-sex marriage and I don't think they're going to look kindly on these attacks.

But beyond Iowa, a focus on divisive social issues would alienate moderate voters who are more concerned with a sputtering U.S. economic recovery than with gay people getting married. That could prove a problem if Bachmann has to spend too much time defending her views on gay rights to an already wary public.