Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann formally enters the Republican presidential contest Monday amid signs that she is already a leading alternative to national front-runner Mitt Romney, after a poll released over the weekend showed the two running neck-and-neck in Iowa.

The poll positions Ms. Bachmann in the nation’s first nominating state, and possibly elsewhere, as the top populist, tea-party backed challenger to Mr. Romney, who owes his support, in large part, to the establishment, business-friendly wing of the GOP.

Ms. Bachmann’s numbers are lower in national surveys. But the Register poll showed that, at the starting line of her campaign, Ms. Bachmann has already built a strong position in Iowa as a “passion candidate,” thanks to support among social-issue conservatives, her frequent television appearances and her willingness to lock horns with Republican leaders in Washington. The Register said Ms. Bachmann drew support from very conservative Republicans and those who consider themselves tea-party supporters.

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