Tea Party Praised but Its Leaders Mostly Absent at Key Conservative Conference

Organizers of the RightOnline conference of conservative bloggers and activists are touting the influence of the Tea Party, saying the grassroots movement has been pivotal in galvanizing citizen activists across the country through new media and social networking websites.

But of the roughly 100 speakers and panelists present at the annual forum of like-minded activists, few, if any, represented national Tea Party organizations, raising questions about how well the movement will work with long-established conservative groups leading up to the November midterm elections.

The Right Online conference, now in its third year and sponsored by the conservative group Americans for Prosperity, is aimed at teaching grassroots activists how to become more effective through new media and popular social networking sites, like Twitter and Facebook.

Arguably, no conservative group or movement yet has made better use of such networking sites than the Tea Partiers, who fueled the movement with Twitter and relied heavily on Facebook and other sites to organize rallies – locally and nationally.

“The Tea Parties are largely a new-media phenomenon,” said Phil Kerpen, vice president of policy for Americans for Prosperity. “I don’t think that type of mass uprising would have been possible without these tools.”

On Friday, David Crow of the Falkner County Tea Party in Arkansas and Eric Odom, a conservative activist and tea party organizer, led a session at the RightOnline conference on the “Future of the Tea Party Movement.” But leaders from national Tea Party factions, like the Tea Party Express and Tea Party Patriots, were noticeably absent from the list of attendees scheduled to speak on web activism.

RightOnline organizers dispute any suggestion that the Tea Party’s presence was minimized at the conference. Many of the bloggers and activists present at the forum are diehard Tea Party followers, organizers said, and the movement has no hierarchy or top-down leadership

“There’s no king of the Tea Parties that you have to invite in order to reach out to Tea Parties, and I think that the Tea Party ethos is clearly a part of what we’re doing but we’re also distinct from it,” Kerpen said in an interview with FoxNews.com. “It’s not fair to say that we’re shutting people out.”

Kerpen and other organizers pointed to the event’s keynote speaker, Tea Party favorite Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., as evidence that the movement had strong representation at the grassroots conference. Bachmann, just this week, took the lead in forming a new Tea Party caucus in Congress.

“Michele Bachman is probably, among elected officials, the most identified with the Tea Party movement,” he said.

And the core message of the Tea Party movement – fiscal conservatism, less government and a return to “common sense” principles – was indeed apparent throughout the speeches and day-long sessions, attended by roughly 1,100 activists inside the Venetian Hotel.

Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., headlined the conference earlier Friday and called on the activists to “lead us back to common sense values,” while taking aim at the Democrats over the national deficit.

Erik Telford, executive director of RightOnline, dismissed claims that certain “fringe” members of the Tea Party have caused Republicans to distance themselves from the movement.

Telford said the Tea Party is “playing a huge role” in the upcoming congressional elections. “If anything hurts the Republicans, it’s going to be the Republicans themselves and not the Tea Party,” he said.

“These are good, normal Americans that just care about what’s going on,” Telford said, noting that an “extremist” wing often emerges within every political movement.

“These people are dedicated and they will become the foot soldiers in many of the campaigns and political activities going into the fall,” added Kerpen.