Steele Meets With Tea Party Leaders at RNC Headquarters

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele sat down with about 50 Tea Party leaders Tuesday in the first such meeting of Republican Party and the growing conservative movement -- two sides that could be either vital partners or bitter rivals.

The meeting was part of a broader effort by national Republicans to reach out to Tea Party activists rather than risk their hand-picked candidates being run over by the movement.

“For over a year, I have made it a priority to have conversations with different grassroots activists who are concerned with the direction of our country and today’s meeting was an excellent opportunity to continue this conversation," Steele said in a statement after the meeting. "We share a common purpose in stopping President Obama’s agenda and standing up for principles such as smaller government, lower taxes, free enterprise, and the constitution."

He said that as they move into the midterm elections this fall, he looks forward to continuing to build on their discussion and to work to elect officials who "will fight to protect the principles which they and a majority of Americans support.”

Tea Party activists emphatically shouted "No" when asked if they are now loyal Republicans after the meeting.

Karen Hoffman, an activist from D.C. Works for Us who spoke for the group, said that they had a very productive meeting with Steele, who answered every question, sometimes two or three from one person.

"It was a healthy discussion ... the whole desire for this was for us to be heard. ... We believe that from this meeting we were heard," she said.

Hoffman said that the party did not try to dissuade them from primary fights, nor would they do that if asked.

"The grassroots movement will be the grassroots movement... It is an autonomous movement."

Tea Party supporters identify far more with the Republican platform than the Democratic Party's, but they have not been shy about voicing their discontent with elected Republicans and running against the party's favored candidates. They threw an upstate New York congressional race into disarray last fall when they backed a third-party candidate over Republican Dede Scozzafava, forcing her out of the race. Democrat Bill Owens won the special election.

Tea Party activists have since targeted multiple Republicans they don't feel are conservative enough, such as Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and Utah Sen. Bob Bennett.

There is no single Tea Party group or individual in charge of the activists, but the movement has been trying to become more organized and focused. Tea Party organizers from across the country attended a national convention two weeks ago in Nashville, where they discussed strategy for this year's midterm elections.

Some Republican figures, including former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, view the movement as a major force in the upcoming elections that Republicans in some districts will have to court if they want to win.

Fox News' Jake Gibson contributed to this report.