GOP convention to show tea party influence

GOP convention to show tea party influence

Welcome to the first Republican National Convention of the tea party era.

The conservative movement that began in 2009 as discordant activists protesting government spending and bailouts, burst forth as a Republican electoral force in 2010 and grappled with governing during the 2011 debt-ceiling standoff, has arrived at its first convention as a source of inspiration and conflict.

The tea party is pulling the GOP to the right and electing candidates to local school boards, city councils, county parties and higher offices. It also has caused friction with a Republican Party that embraces the movement's small-government enthusiasm while it resists some of its more aggressive candidates.

In its platform and speakers, Republicans are using the convention to attempt to harness the movement's energy toward electing Mitt Romney as president.

While tea party activists have resisted a party label, they have made their imprint on the Republican platform this year.

Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens, who helped draft the platform last week, marveled at the shift on fiscal issues from the 2008 convention.

"Items such as requesting an audit of the [federal reserve] were certainly not issues that would have been talked about four years ago, but everyone knows they are very much needed now," Olens said. "There is significant discussion about reforming government. Everyone understands there's total dissatisfaction with the governmental process now."

Julianne Thompson, a Suwanee resident and director of the Georgia Tea Party Patriots, will be an RNC delegate. Thompson said the platform is a reflection that the tea party has "a seat at the table," and she sees the convention as a critical moment.

"We are all coming together in Tampa, and we are uniting as a party," Thompson said. "We're leaving the primaries behind us, and we're leaving our differences behind us because we know the most important thing right now is taking back the White House in November."

But the convention means little to Jenny Beth Martin, nationwide leader of the Tea Party Patriots and a Cherokee County resident. Martin said when she held a conference call a couple of months ago with tens of thousands of activists, 97 percent said they did not want a big Tea Party Patriots presence at the Democratic or Republican conventions.

"Our folks are angry and they're solemn and determined," said Martin, who will travel to Tampa but not as a delegate. "They are not in the mood to party."

She said the conventions are little more than a series of parties that do not necessarily align with the movement's core mission of small government and free markets.

Torin Archbold of the Austin Tea Party Patriots said the list of major speakers — and one glaring omission — told him Tampa will not be his kind of scene.

"This is going to be more like an establishment Republican convention," Archbold said. "You have to figure that you have Mitt Romney as a nominee, [New Jersey Gov.] Chris Christie giving the keynote, and you are totally devoid of a Sarah Palin.

"If you look at the 2010 elections nobody did more for getting conservative or Republican candidates in [office] than Sarah Palin — and she's not even invited to the convention."

Many tea party adherents will come to Tampa for the festivities that begin Monday and culminate Thursday when Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, is scheduled to accept the GOP's nomination for president.

In 2008, two-thirds of American households watched the conventions on television, according to the Nielsen rating company.

As Republicans seek to define themselves to the nation, much of their party identity is aligned with the tea party. Many Republican officials hopped on the bandwagon quickly.

"There obviously are some differences but I think the convention, if it does its job right, will make 99.5 percent of them feel good about going out and electing Mitt Romney," said Kerwin Swint, political science professor at Kennesaw State University. "They're not going to forget their differences. If Mitt Romney wins, there are Republicans who are going to want to remind him of the priorities of the movement."

"I am a tea party member — have been for three years," said Ohio Republican Party chairman Bob Bennett. "I want to know what they're all about. The media like to say they're all a bunch of whack-a-doodles. They aren't." The tea party focus is on bringing accountability and transparency to government, he said.

Romney's rise illustrated the movement's power and limitations. He was not the first choice of skeptical activists during the primary season, but he adopted tea party-inspired polices on many issues -- often at odds with his own record.

One of Romney's erstwhile opponents, McDonough businessman Herman Cain, is holding a "Unity Rally" Sunday for tea party activists.

"The tea party movement is bigger and stronger than ever. That's the good news," said Cain, whose run for the presidency was fueled by the tea party but derailed late last year amid sexual scandal.

"The bad news is it's still the same fragmented organization that it started out to be, and that has both pluses and minuses," Cain said. "So the challenge to the RNC and the challenge to the Romney campaign is, how do you make sure that this very significant movement becomes a positive force in getting our ticket elected?"

Several candidates with tea party support have been elected in recent years by upending the choice of Republican Party leaders. But once they triumph, the party has often embraced those candidates.

For example, in Texas, underdog U.S. Senate hopeful Ted Cruz took out establishment pick David Dewhurst in a GOP primary last month, then was immediately labeled a rising star and given a primetime convention speech.

It does not always work out that way. Republicans lost Senate seat opportunities in Nevada and Delaware in 2010 when surprise tea party-backed candidates Sharron Angle and Christine O'Donnell won primaries, then flopped in the general election.

Out of the national spotlight, the tea party has been making its mark on local politics.

In Georgia, tea party activists were instrumental in defeating a proposed sales tax increase to fund transportation projects last month.

In Dayton, tea party activist Rob Scott took over the Montgomery County Republican Party, getting the votes of enough like-minded supporters on the central committee to become chairman.

Scott said the Tea Party has enormous influence in the Ohio GOP and was instrumental in forcing out Kevin DeWine as chairman and bringing back Bob Bennett. He said the tea party is injecting new enthusiasm and energy into Republican campaigns and pushing officeholders and candidates to focus on fiscal issues.

"We may not be able to control what happens in D.C. or even at the state level but we have a big chance to influence at a local level," Scott said. "So I encourage people to run for local offices."

The movement's popularity has waned somewhat. An ABC News poll in April found 41 percent of Americans support the tea party while 45 percent oppose it. Even as the philosophy has become dominant among Republicans, Martin said her task is to convince the doubters.

"The biggest thing we've been focused on is how to win hearts and minds of Americans so we understand what the problems are," she said, "and how $16 trillion in debt is going to affect every single one of us."

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