MIAMI (Reuters) - Republican White House hopeful Michele Bachmann insisted on Monday she was joking when she said a hurricane and quake were God's warning to Washington, in an effort to control the damage from her latest controversial comments.
The Tea Party favourite raised eyebrows with a weekend remark to supporters in Florida that Hurricane Irene, which killed at least 24 people and left millions without power, and an East Coast earthquake were God's way of telling U.S. politicians to cut spending and fix the budget deficit.
"I don't know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians. We've had an earthquake; we've had a hurricane. He said, 'Are you going to start listening to me here?'" Bachmann said at a campaign event in Sarasota on Sunday.
"Listen to the American people because the American people are roaring right now. They know government is on a morbid obesity diet and we've got to rein in the spending," she said.
Bachmann, among the top three candidates seen to have a chance to win the Republican nomination and take on President Barack Obama next year, made similar comments elsewhere in Florida on Saturday, drawing some laughs from her audience.
When the remarks began drawing wide attention, she went into some damage control.
"Of course I was being humorous when I said that. It would be absurd to think it was anything else," Bachmann said on Monday on a campaign stop in Miami.
"I am a person who loves humour, I have a great sense of humour," she said.
The hurricane drenched Vermont and caused the worst flooding in the state for 80 years. The 5.8 magnitude earthquake, a rare occurrence on the East Coast, shook up Washington and did minor damage to the Capitol building and Washington Monument.
Many comments by Bachmann, a Minnesota congresswoman, have come under scrutiny since she surged toward the head of the Republican election race over the summer.
During her campaign roll-out in June, she declared that iconic American actor John Wayne was from her hometown of Waterloo, Iowa, when in fact he was born 150 miles away.
She has also been quizzed about a remark that suggested wives should be submissive to their husbands, and in a recent speech confused Elvis' birthday with the anniversary of his death.
Bachmann told her Miami audience on Monday that if she was elected president, "you won't see any teleprompter in the White House." She criticized Obama for often using one for speeches.
Bachmann is popular in the fiscally conservative Tea Party movement and with religious social conservatives. She won an important poll in the early voting state of Iowa earlier this month but recent surveys have shown her lagging behind Texas Governor Rick Perry and moderate Mitt Romney.
A CNN poll on Monday put her in fourth place among Republicans, with nine percent, and behind former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin who has not declared her candidacy.
Bachmann seems to be fighting Perry for the same kind of conservative Republican voters and falling behind.
Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak said her Irene comment reflected a dilemma for the Minnesotan, that she has to shift right to regain her footing against Perry but in doing so she raises questions about whether she is electable.
"I think she's just got to be careful not to create any more controversy by trying to tack right. She doesn't need to tack right," he said.
Gaffes and public missteps can ruin presidential campaigns. Perhaps the most famous was President Gerald Ford's insistence in a televised debate with Jimmy Carter in 1976 that the Soviet Union did not dominate eastern Europe, at a time when Moscow held an iron grip on the region.
Democratic hopeful Michael Dukakis' 1988 campaign went downhill after he was pictured in a tank and lampooned as soft on defence by the eventual winner, Republican George H.W. Bush.
Bachmann is not the only Republican to use biblical language to describe the current U.S. economic woes and to curry favor with Christian evangelical voters.
Perry has been prolific on the subject. Last May, he told an interviewer that, "I think we're going through those difficult economic times for a purpose, to bring us back to those biblical principles."
Writing by Alistair Bell, additional reporting by Steve Holland in Washington and Todd Melby in Minneapolis, editing by Jackie Frank