POLITICS

Tea Party influencing GOP race

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Five months before the first voting in the nomination fight, a Gallup survey of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents last week found Perry pulling strong support from voters who identify themselves as tea party supporters, with 35 percent, followed by Romney and Bachmann at 14 percent.

That may help explain why Romney decided to speak Sunday at a Tea Party Express rally in New Hampshire and, a day later, appear at a forum in South Carolina hosted by GOP Sen. Jim DeMint, who oversees a political committee that has supported tea party candidates. Perry, Bachmann and others in the 2012 planned to appear at DeMint's event.

Tea party groups have indicated they'll protest Romney's appearances. They are irked that as governor, he signed a bill that enacted a health program mandating insurance coverage. It served as a precursor to Obama's federal measure that the tea party despises.

So Romney has stepped up his courtship in recent weeks. At a veterans' hall in Berlin, N.H., a voter asked how Romney would handle the "right-wing fringe" that, the questioner said, had taken over the GOP.
Romney's answer: "I'll take a bit of exception with that. ... You're not going to see me distance myself from those who believe in small government, because I believe in it too." He made similar comments to the Foster's Daily Democrat.

Other candidates are rushing to the tea party's defense, too.
Rick Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, recently ridiculed a Democratic congresswoman who said the tea party should "go straight to hell." Americans on the political left "absolutely despise the founding principles of this country," he said.

When Democrats accused the tea party of holding the GOP hostage during the debt debate, Bachmann sent out a fundraising letter that said, "Only in the bizarro world of Washington is fiscal responsibility sometimes defined as terrorism."

The tea party is felt in other ways.

At an Iowa debate in August, every candidate on stage signaled opposition to a debt-reduction deal if it included as much as $1 in tax increases for every $10 in spending cuts, which the tea party advocated.

The early exit of former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty from the race can be attributed in part to his failure to earn credibility with the tea party movement. Bachmann's entire candidacy could, perhaps, be attributed to encouragement she received from tea party backers; she's courted them since the party's founding.

Each time a candidate is linked to the movement, the Democratic National Committee gleefully works to brand the candidate, and the Republican Party in general, as outside the mainstream.

Tea party activists are emboldened after helping get 30 like-minded House members elected last fall. Their victories changed the direction of Congress so much that demands from tea party-aligned lawmakers nearly halted government during this summer's debt debate.

Aside from the presidential race, tea party leaders have no less than 100 congressional primaries in their sights as they look to expand their influence on Capitol Hill.

The Houston-based Alliance for Self-Governance, a new group that wants to oust long-serving Washington incumbents, is working to train grass-roots organizers to identify potential supporters and get them to the polls. An offshoot, the Campaign for Primary Accountability, an outside group that can raise unlimited amounts of money, hopes to influence House campaigns.

"We are not looking to change the party balance. We want to change the people who will have the power in Congress," said Leo E. Linbeck III, the alliance's co-chairman.

Whatever happens, the party is leaving a stamp on the presidential race, and Democrats hope it will last.

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