Published April 16, 2011
It's a tricky time of courtship.
As the Tea Party turns 2, the still-gelling field of Republican presidential contenders is the first class of White House hopefuls to try to figure out how to tap the movement's energy without alienating voters elsewhere on the political spectrum.
Look no further than this weekend's events marking the Tea Party's second anniversary to see how the candidates are employing different strategies. Some will be out front as the Tea Party stages tax day rallies across the country. Others, not so much.
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, an establishment Republican making a play for Tea Party support and clamoring to be heard over bigger names, is among those jumping in with both feet. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour is being more coy.
Pawlenty joined a gathering on Boston Common -- in the city where colonists staged the 1773 Tea Party revolt against the British government -- and earlier in neighboring New Hampshire. And he's headed for Iowa a day later for similar appearances that are likely to include "Don't Tread on Me" banners and tirades against Washington spending.
Pawlenty led a crowd here in chanting "Yes, he did!" -- a negative take on Obama's "Yes, we can!" campaign slogan -- as he listed what he called Obama's broken promises to halve the federal deficit, contain health care costs with GOP aid and prevent 8 percent unemployment.
"Thank you for being modern-day Paul Reveres, sounding the alarm and being the patriots who are going to lead the effort to take back our country," he said, echoing an earlier appearance in Concord.
For his part, Obama said he welcomed the activists' work to "force some questions to the surface about who we are as a people, and what can we afford and what kind of government do we want."
"Obviously I have very different views than many in the Tea Party and certainly they would say they have very different views from me in terms of the proper role of government in our society," Obama said in an interview with The Associated Press, "but my general view is that the more engaged the American people are, the more focused they are, then the better off our democracy will be over the long term."
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, perhaps the Republican most closely identified with the Tea Party, is slated to attend a weekend Tea Party rally at the Wisconsin Capitol, the site of recent protests over legislation that would strip union rights for most public workers.
Tea Party darling Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, all but drafted into the race by Tea Partyers, plans to share the steps of the South Carolina Statehouse with another of the movement's favorite daughters, Gov. Nikki Haley.
And little-known businessman Herman Cain, who is hoping Tea Party backing can make him more than a longshot, planned to hit rallies in New Hampshire, Iowa, Michigan and Texas.
"A sleeping giant -- we the people -- has awakened, and it's not going back to sleep," Cain said. "We the people are still in charge of this country, no matter what you decide to call us."
Real estate magnate Donald Trump, who says he's serious about running, picked a Tea Party rally in Boca Raton, Fla., to make his stand.
And former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum told a crowd on the New Hampshire Statehouse's lawn that the 2012 election is a choice between the nation's founding fathers or Obama.
"Are we a country that is again going to believe in ourselves, in free people, in limited government, so we can transform the world and leave our country better than we found it?"
Other contenders are proceeding with more caution.
Barbour plans weekend stops at county GOP conventions in Charleston, Columbia and Lexington, S.C. But he had no big tax day rallies on his schedule in a state where Tea Party activists have gained influence. As he weighs a presidential bid, Barbour has been more subtle than others in courting the movement. He talks about issues the Tea Party cares about, first and foremost the economy.
It's the same approach that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has been taking. He talks about lower taxes and reduced government. He decries the Internal Revenue Service, a top target of Tea Partyers. And in his defense of the Massachusetts health care overhaul that he pushed through, he invokes the 10th Amendment that guarantees states' rights.
In an opinion piece published Friday in the Orlando Sentinel, Romney praised the Tea Party-style activists: "Thanks to the Tea Party, there's real hope that we can rein in our profligate federal government."
But he spends the bulk of the column -- and his Friday appearance at an accounting office in Orlando -- criticizing President Obama on policy, not invoking the Founding Fathers.
"This is the time when the American people recognize that the government is taking too big a bite and what we really need to do is allow individuals in the private sector to grow and thrive so we can get people to work and folks can plan for a bright and prosperous future," Romney told reporters in Florida.
Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels has followed a similar model. He had no public events scheduled for anti-tax rallies but has proved eager to criticize Washington spending.
The tentativeness toward becoming a Tea Party candidate is understandable.
No candidate can afford to ignore these anti-establishment, anti-tax, conservative-libertarian rabble-rousers whose enthusiasm fired up the GOP base and helped Republicans win control of the House in November. But wrapping themselves in the Tea Party mantle carries risks for candidates.
They could get pushed too far to the right during the primaries if they embrace the Tea Party's conservative platform. There's also the potential stain of being linked to a group that Democratic critics have labeled extremist, if not racist.
On the expansive Boston Common, protestors hoisted a sign that called for "union jobs and health care for all" in a banner directly in front of the stage. Several times, the protesters interrupted speakers with chants of "Tea Party bigots."
Even so, the Republicans must compete in early primary states where Tea Party activists have made inroads in the GOP establishment and made clear that they intend to have a say in the presidential race.
"We want to find the best candidate and the best vehicle for us to reclaim our republic," says Jerry DeLemus, a Tea Party leader from Rochester, N.H. "The Republican Party is a vehicle that we can use to effect positive change."
Iowa's Tea Party leaders, meanwhile, have mapped out a strategy to engage supporters and road-test presidential candidates with hopes of influencing the leadoff nominating caucuses. They are planning a bus tour through the state this summer, featuring at least four GOP presidential prospects, as well as a series of caucus training sessions.
New Hampshire's Tea Party activists made gains within the state's central GOP committee, and elected Jack Kimball as the state GOP chairman over the establishment's pick in January. And the Tea Party footprint in South Carolina also has expanded, with activists becoming more influential inside GOP county organizations.
The Tea Party's birth can be traced to spring 2009, when libertarians and conservatives rose up in small towns and big cities alike to oppose Obama's policies on such issues as the $787 billion economic stimulus measure, Wall Street bailouts and his health care plan.
Some activists point to a CNBC anchor's televised tirade about taxes as the launching point. Others dispute that.
Whatever its origin, there's no doubt about the Tea Party's power.
"We've changed the political landscape in Washington and in statehouses across the country," says Amy Kremer, chairwoman of the Tea Party Express. "We have to keep going and keep beating the drum."