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Bachmann now says she was joking about God sending Irene

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 40 people in the United States 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?' " Ms. Bachmann said at a campaign event in Sarasota on Sunday.

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"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.

Ms. 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," Ms. 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.

Many comments by Ms. Bachmann, a Minnesota congresswoman, have come under scrutiny since she surged toward the head of the Republican election race over the summer.

Ms. 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.

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A CNN poll on Monday put her in fourth place among Republicans, with nine per cent, and behind former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin who has not declared her candidacy.

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 Mr. 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.

Signs from the Lord? When biblical language is used to make political points

The Minnesota congresswoman is not the only Republican to use biblical language to describe the current U.S. economic woes and to curry favour with Christian evangelical voters.

– Last May Texas Governor Rick Perry, the Republican front-runner, 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."

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– Televangelist Pat Robertson, who campaigned to become the Republican Party's nominee in 1988, asked recently whether the cracks that developed in the world's tallest obelisk, the Washington Monument, after a magnitude-5.8 earthquake rattled much of the East Coast, were a sign from the Lord. "Is that something that has significance or is it just result of an earthquake? You judge, but I just want to bring that to your attention."

– Pastor John Hagee embarrassed then-Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain of Arizona in 2006 by saying that Hurricane Katrina was God's vengeance on New Orleans for hosting a gay pride parade. Mr. McCain promptly rejected the comparison.

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