The tea party's second act: Was 2010 a steppingstone or a high-water mark?

Their model for tea-party unity is being replicated in states like Michigan, Oregon and Iowa, Bowers said.

The leaders of national tea party groups, such as Tea Party Express and FreedomWorks, both of which endorsed Mourdock, believe a Lugar loss would immediately "send shockwaves" across the country, to use Steinhauser's words.

Amid the "media narrative: Is the tea party alive? This will put a temporary end to that discussion," Steinhauser said. "The tea party is alive and well."

Tea party supporters already achieved one important victory this year. Last month, tea party challenger Dan Liljenquist pushed longtime Sen. Orrin Hatch into a primary in Utah. Liljenquist and his team readily admit he now faces an uphill battle against a well-funded, well-known and experienced lawmaker in a statewide race, but his supporters say his victory was their first taste of winning this year.

"In Utah, people saw that the tea party was alive and well," Kremer said, adding that people now understand that for the tea party to survive, it must be part of the political process.

"If you want change, you have to change the players," she said.

The Tea Party Express, which is focused this year on helping Republicans win back the Senate, has endorsed five Senate candidates in addition to Mourdock: Ted Cruz in Texas; Sarah Steelman in Missouri; Jon Bruning in Nebraska; Josh Mandel in Ohio; and Tom Smith in Pennsylvania.

FreedomWorks shares some of the same targets, plus additional House and Senate candidates, including incumbents such as Rep. Steve King of Iowa--a tea party star.

Steinhauser identified races in Texas, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Missouri, Florida, and Maine among those states where FreedomWorks is active.

Both organizations have made the recall election of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker a major focus in the weeks ahead. A Tea Party Express email to supporters Thursday stated:

This election is not only a fight for Wisconsin. It's a fight for our conservative values nationwide. A win on June 5 will be a referendum on those trying to stifle the voice of the people and hand power back to the big-government public union bosses that want nothing more than complete control of a state's budget.

Walker, who became a national target of the left last year when he took on public employee unions in his state, faces a recall primary May 8 that he is expected to win handily. The real fight to hold his seat looms on June 5, when he faces a Democratic opponent.

The tea party regards the effort to recall Walker as unfair and unwarranted.

"It's one thing to recall somebody for not doing their job," Kremer said. "It's another to recall them if you have a problem with their ideology."

With the effort, money and energy the movement has put into Walker's recall, Mourdock's primary and other local elections this year, the tea party has effectively turned these races into the determining factor of whether it will be viewed as a major force in politics after 2012.

Even so, the Tea Party Express and select additional groups (but not all) plan to be involved in the presidential race even though Mitt Romney is not regarded as a tea party favorite.

"I will work my heart out," for whomever wins the nomination, Kremer said. "We can't afford another four more years of President Obama."

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