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Missouri primary is latest test of Tea Party influence, with Wisconsin, Arizona on horizon

Sarah Steelman Sarah Palin.jpg

Republican Senate candidate Sarah Steelman of Missouri, seen at left in a February 2012 file photo, has received some high-profile support, most notably from Sarah Palin.AP

Sarah Palin is mounting an aggressive campaign in Missouri -- in television and radio ads, in automated telephone calls, even serving barbecued pork sandwiches at a rural political picnic. She's urging residents to vote for Sarah -- Sarah Steelman, one of three Republicans in a prickly U.S. Senate primary.

Fresh off a resounding Republican runoff victory by Ted Cruz in Texas, Palin and the tea party movement now are trying to capitalize in primaries this month in Missouri, Wisconsin and Arizona. But they may pose a more difficult test than in Texas, where the charismatic Cruz waged an outsider's campaign against the Republican establishment's pick of Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.

In Tuesday's primary in Missouri, conservative loyalties are fractured among a trio of candidates all preaching a smaller-government message while splitting the endorsements of conservative celebrities. In Wisconsin, the would-be tea party beneficiaries are up against a political icon -- former four-term Gov. Tommy Thompson. In all three states, millionaire businessmen are self-financing campaigns focused more on a Main Street message of job-creation than a direct tea party appeal.

The uncertain outlook shows that winning as a tea party candidate still takes a combination of factors, even in states where Republicans are conservative and getting more so. Holding sole claim to the tea party label is a big help, along with strong campaign skills and vulnerable opponents.

Few hopefuls manage to have all three.

"The voters in Missouri are conservative like Texas, so I certainly hope it's going to help," Steelman said a day after Cruz's victory on July 31, as she passed out newly printed fliers featuring Palin's face and Steelman's 12-point platform to a lunchtime crowd at a Jefferson City diner.

She and other Republican candidates have taken notice of Cruz's powerful coalition -- featuring Palin and other tea party stars such as South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul; talk-show personalities Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity; and financially stacked political groups such as the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks for America. But she, and the multiple conservative contenders in the other states, are splitting the key endorsements with their opponents, creating a murkier picture for voters.

Steelman, 54, is a former state senator and treasurer who lost a Republican primary for governor four years ago. Her father is a former Missouri Republican Party chairman and her husband a former attorney general candidate. She's hardly a political outsider as she seeks to challenge Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill. Yet she's running on a slogan of "the status quo has got to go," she has the endorsement of the Tea Party Express and she's airing a TV ad in which Palin describes her as an economist "who defends our tax dollars like a momma grizzly defends her cubs."

Some grassroots tea party activists aren't impressed.

"She tried to attach herself to the tea party without actually getting our approval. None of us in the tea party really appreciated that," said Jeannine Huskey, 56, of Eureka, who is supporting businessman John Brunner.

Brunner, 60, is the former CEO and chairman of health care products manufacturer Vi-Jon Inc. He has poured more than $7.5 million into a campaign centered on his private-sector experience, and he's benefiting from millions more in advertising by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Brunner also has the support of FreedomWorks, which aided Cruz.

Brunner doesn't describe himself as a tea party candidate. But he says: "I think there is a groundswell going across the country," citing victories by Cruz and tea party favorite Richard Mourdock, who defeated Sen. Richard Lugar for the GOP nomination in Indiana. He adds: "I believe folks are looking a little more intensely in terms of what are the featured attributes and elements we need in Washington, D.C., to get the job done."

Brunner, Steelman and the Club for Growth all have criticized the third prominent Republican in the race -- Rep. Todd Akin --for using earmarks, which is a big turnoff to many in the tea party movement. Yet Akin, 65, has the backing of Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, a tea party star, as well as former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. His opposition to the 2008 bank bailout and his desire to abolish the federal Department of Education all appeal to the strident right.

Polling showed Akin trailing Brunner and Steelman in late July, but Akin expressed confidence that he was closing strong. He is the only leading Republican not to have run negative ads against his rivals.

In Wisconsin's Senate race, Thompson was ahead in the polls last month. Yet political newcomer Eric Hovde, a hedge fund manager, and former two-term Rep. Mark Neumann are hoping for a Cruz-like bounce before the Aug. 14 Republican primary. Hovde, who has the backing of FreedomWorks, has spent at least $4 million of his own money while portraying himself as the most fiscally conservative candidate.

But Neumann, who was third in the polls, may stand to benefit the most if there is a tea party surge. He has the backing of Sens. DeMint and Paul, as well the Club for Growth. The day after Cruz won in Texas, Neumann began airing a TV ad that touts him as "conservative before it was cool" -- noting he was removed from a House subcommittee in 1995 for refusing to go along with Republican leadership.

The quest to be the most conservative has been central to many Republican primaries this year.

In Arizona's Aug. 28 primary for Senate, Palin has endorsed Rep. Jeff Flake, a longtime crusader against spending earmarks who is seeking to succeed retiring Sen. Jon Kyl. Flake also has the support of Kyl and Arizona Sen. John McCain.

Yet real estate mogul Wil Cardon, who casts himself as a tea party candidate, has lent his campaign more than $6 million while trying to position himself to the right of Flake. One Cardon television ad featured an altered photo that made it appear that Flake literally stood behind President Barack Obama -- suggesting Flake's stance on immigration was the same as the Democratic president.

Unlike in the Texas contest, it's not so easy in Arizona, Wisconsin or Missouri to clearly distinguish the tea party favorite.

Analyzing the Missouri race, Akin conceded that despite his congressional tea party support, Palin's help for Steelman is "pulling some of our social conservatives, and Brunner is taking our economic conservatives.

"The question is how does that all break down? Akin asked. "I don't think anybody really knows."