Showing that it's not only Democrats who can be "swiftboated," The Daily Caller, the conservative alternative to The Huffington Post, launched an anonymity-fuelled hit piece on Michele Bachmann's migraine headaches this week. Now, there are plenty of reasons to doubt Bachmann's fitness to be president; however, they don't involve her headaches, but a head filled with fantasies about economics, history, homosexuality, the biology of evolution, and the science of climate change. Of course, this isn't the first recent campaign smear by Republicans against Republicans — for example, the Rove-orchestrated personal assault against John McCain during the 2000 South Carolina primary.

McCain stood between the establishment favorite and the nomination. Bachmann's position is different. There's no single establishment ordinand this time; as one party operative puts it, "Mitt Romney's the weakest frontrunner in decades." But establishment Republicans suddenly fear that while Bachmann can never win a general election, she can prevail in the primaries. She has to be taken down — and you can't do it by assailing her wifty views, because that would only strengthen her with the angry hardliners likely to dominate the GOP contest. Memo to Rove, who promptly flacked The Daily Caller piece in a Fox interview (Video, via You reap what you sow, and Bachmann's rise is the unhappy harvest of a 2004 strategy that was base in both meanings of that word.

A Republican establishment that exploited and empowered the politics of alienation and paranoia now views Bachmann with alarm as charismatic, the champion of the embittered, crazy to many, irresistible to some.

But the party establishment is right about the achievement-free firebrand from Minnesota: Bachmann, who would crash and burn in November 2012, could seize the nomination next winter and spring. Here's how.

First come the Iowa caucuses, where most polls already show her leading, and which now operate in distinctly different ways for the two parties. With just one exception, since 1976, every Democrat who's successfully sought the nomination and competed in Iowa has carried the caucuses. Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan essentially tied in 1976 — which was a moral victory for Reagan, who nonetheless ultimately fell short at the convention. Then Reagan and the first George Bush both lost Iowa at the start of their successful runs. Only Bob Dole and the second Bush went from victory in the Hawkeye State to the GOP nomination. 

While that offers a cautionary note, there's a second difference that enhances Bachmann's prospects this time — not merely in Iowa, but nationally. 

Democrats in Iowa have become increasingly pragmatic. They may indulge the politics of grievance — witness Howard Dean's surge in the summer of 2004 — but only up to a point. In late autumn, as caucus night approaches, they tend to focus on a deciding question. In 2004, it was who had a chance to beat Bush — and the answer was John Kerry. In 2008, when Democrats thought any of the major candidates could take the White House, the question was who stands most for change — and the answer was Barack Obama.

Meanwhile, the Republicans who control the caucuses have morphed steadily and self-consciously into a more unyielding ideological stance.  Last time out, they rallied to the underfunded and implausible Mike Huckabee, a former preacher and governor of Arkansas, who left Iowa with enough momentum to fight on in other primaries, denying critical votes to Romney and ensuring McCain a plurality nomination. In a two-way contest, hard as it may be to credit in the context of the current campaign, more of Huckabee's fundamentalist and true-believing conservatives would have reluctantly picked Romney over the suspiciously heterodox McCain.

In 2012, victory in Iowa could make Bachmann much more than a spoiler, instead setting her up to triumph nationally in a GOP which across the country has moved sharply toward Iowa's ideological edge. Romney could venture the high-risk gamble of an all-out effort in Iowa; if he won there, and then in New Hampshire, he would repeat the Gore and Kerry scenarios and all but lock up the Republican nod. But his conspicuous caution in dealing with Iowa reveals his worry that he's hit a ceiling there with the religious right and Tea Party types who disdain his flip flops — and for whom, in any event, he can probably never flip far enough.

Romney clearly and dearly wishes New Hampshire was in truth, and not just in slogan, "first in the nation." He assumes it will be his triumph — given the expectations, it has to be; but it may not be triumph enough. The growing ranks of tea drinkers and reactionary purists among the state's Republican electorate could hand Bachmann a secure second place. Simultaneously, Romney's distant cousin, the one-time governor of Utah and not-so-long-ago Obama official Jon Huntsman, who seems to be looking toward 2016, when he'll be able to say to the GOP — "I told you so," could achieve sufficient lift-off in the primary to claim a real share of independents and the remaining moderate Republicans, and thus shave Romney's margin. 

The rubber matches will probably play out in South Carolina and Florida. By then, and perhaps he even contemplates it now, Romney could benefit from the entry of Texas Gov. Rick Perry. This is contrary to the conventional wisdom. Perry, we're repeatedly informed, is a twofer — at least acceptable to the establishment, and undoubtedly attractive to the Tea Party. But he could also split the tea, taxophobic, and social reactionary vote with Bachmann — and let Romney, like McCain, become the nominee-apparent with plurality wins in the early and pivotal battlegrounds.

Perry may not run — or like the press-anointed favorite, now known as "2 percent Pawlenty," run like a dry creek. Bachmann might coalesce the right-wing base as Perry uncomfortably seeks to straddle the conventional and the uncompromising. His dual identity could be subtractive, not additive. 

And in a one-on-one showdown, perhaps with a sideshow Huntsman still draining Romney, Bachmann could claim South Carolina with the support of Mormon-phobic evangelists and yellow-dog conservatives unconvinced by Romney's serial conversions. The assumption is that she'd have more trouble in a more cosmopolitan Florida. But that's the state where Republicans handed their gubernatorial nomination last year to Rick Scott, who was involved in the largest Medicare fraud in history, and in the process almost handed the governorship to the Democrats. The risky Scott got through the primary by riding a wave of self-financed cash and his image as the most anti-government candidate in the field. As governor, Scott has plumbed record depths of unpopularity.

We've seen something like this before. Remember, it was Republicans in California who disastrously conferred the 1964 presidential nomination on Barry Goldwater. A party that last year threw away control of the Senate by running Sharron Angle in Nevada and Christine O'Donnell in Delaware — she was the one who felt compelled to deny she was a witch — is capable of settling, even enthusiastically, on Bachmann. 

She's no cinch and she has the downside of her rebel upside. With few establishment contributors, she'll have to raise money almost entirely from the grassroots. And in addition to the funding challenge and her own flaws, which she so readily manifests, she faces the possibility that Perry, now the figment of desperate Republicans, could actually become the candidate who unites the currently small tent of the GOP. That's why he's being beseeched to announce: Romney's stalling, Pawlenty's stumbling, and Bachmann's soaring. 

One person's fantasy is another person's faith — and Bachmann could mobilize a legion of fringe faithful inside a shrunken Republican Party to seize her own Goldwater-like nomination. So this latest smear, which will not be the last, should come as no surprise. The party's top contributors and professionals, in Washington and on Wall Street, calculate that far from those privileged precincts, Bachmann more than conceivably could march through the process to an acceptance speech at the Tampa convention — and if she does, the real winner of the 2012 Republican primaries will be… Barack Obama. 

In the fall campaign, a far feather on the right-wing just won't fly with the electorate. So for the GOP hit squad, Bachmann's problem isn't migraine headaches. A Republican establishment that exploited and empowered the politics of alienation and paranoia now views Bachmann with alarm as charismatic, the champion of the embittered, crazy to many, irresistible to some. For Republicans, Bachmann's a big political headache — and the Romney aspirin and Perry Tylenol may not provide a cure.