When Rick Barber and Martha Roby square off Tuesday for the Republican nomination in an Alabama congressional district, they'll be representing a larger contest: one that pits the Tea Party's enthusiasm and red meat rhetoric against national GOP leaders' strategy to take control of Congress in November.
Barber, 35, who has served as a Marine, is a Tea Party activist who has drawn national attention for a series of Internet ads that liken President Obama's economic policies to slavery and suggest it might be time for patriots to "gather your armies." Roby, 33, is a two-term Montgomery City Councilwoman who has the backing of top Republican congressional leaders in her effort to become the second woman ever elected to the House of Representatives from Alabama.
The runoff election in the Alabama district, which stretches south from Montgomery to the Florida state line, is the latest in a series of contests this year in which national Republican leaders weighed in against candidates claiming the Tea Party mantle — signaling doubts about whether the movement that galvanized Republican opposition to Obama can attract the centrist Democrats and independent voters it will take to win in November.
According to conventional political wisdom, candidates work to win over those swing voters by tacking toward the center once the primaries are over. In several states where Tea Party candidates have won, however, that hasn't happened.
• In Nevada last week, Sharron Angle, the GOP nominee against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, had to apologize for calling the $20 billion escrow account that Obama forced BP to establish for Gulf spill victims "a slush fund." She also threatened to take Reid to court for reviving an earlier version of the Angle campaign's website — one that includes her stands on eliminating the Department of Education and phasing out Social Security.
• In Kentucky, Republican Senate nominee Rand Paul made waves with his own BP remarks — he called Obama's criticism of the company's drilling operations "un-American" — and with his assertion that private companies should not be required to comply with federal civil rights laws.
GOP candidates aren't the only ones with public relations problems: South Carolina's Democratic Party is refusing to endorse Alvin Greene, a political unknown whose surprise primary victory gave the party a Senate nominee with a spotty résume and a felony obscenity charge.
Greene, however, does not represent a popular movement that has galvanized his party and energized political activists who celebrate the outspokenness that is causing the controversy.
In Kentucky, Paul "right now has the biggest following of any politician in this state," said Al Cross, a longtime local political writer and University of Kentucky journalism professor.
Asked whether political leaders have urged his boss to tone down his rhetoric, Paul campaign manager Jesse Benton said: "There's been some advice. We listen to people ... but Rand's principles are Rand's principles, and he's going to stick to them."
Despite her new, kinder, gentler website, Nevada's Angle probably came to the same conclusion, said Jon Ralston, a Las Vegas-based political columnist and talk show host.
"Sharron Angle cannot move to the center," he said. "She's run her entire public career on being a far-right conservative and proud of it." There's a risk to that strategy, however. "If the race is about Harry Reid, he's probably going to lose," Ralston said. "If the race is about her, he can survive."
In Alabama, Barber is experiencing public relations blowback over his Internet ads. Conservative commentator Glenn Beck denounced the "gather your armies" spot as "horrible" and pronounced Barber "a dope" for posting it.
While the Alabama Republican Party is "completely neutral" in the runoff, Chairman Mike Hubbard said, national congressional leaders have made no secret of their preference for Roby, the daughter of a federal appellate judge appointed by President George H.W. Bush.
House Republican Leader John Boehner of Ohio and Rep. Spencer Bachus, the GOP dean of Alabama's congressional delegation, are among more than half a dozen GOP congressional incumbents helping to bankroll Roby.
Generally, political party leaders stay out of primary contests that don't involve incumbents, but this year has produced some notable exceptions.
Sen. John Cornyn, a Texan who heads his party's Senate campaign committee, was one of a number of prominent Republicans who backed Florida Gov. Charlie Crist over Marco Rubio in Florida's GOP Senate primary until Crist dropped out to run as an independent. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, in his home state of Kentucky, backed Trey Grayson in his losing Senate GOP primary race against Paul.
Barber and Roby are vying to oppose Rep. Bobby Bright, who became the first Democrat to represent the district in 44 years when he won election in 2008. That same year, Bright's constituents favored Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the Republican presidential nominee, over Obama, 63 percent to 37 percent — one reason Republicans have made the district a top target this year.
Brad Moody, a political science professor at Auburn University's Montgomery campus, sees the race as an indicator of how much appeal "honest-to-goodness, 100 percent pure Tea Party types" will have with voters.
Roby bested Barber by 20 percentage points in a four-way June primary, and she has raised more than four times as much money as he has.
There is a wild card that could skew Tuesday's results, however. Also on the ballot: a GOP gubernatorial runoff that pits Robert Bentley, a doctor and state lawmaker, against Bradley Byrne, a former state senator and education official who has been a nemesis of the teachers union. Since voters do not register by party in Alabama, "there will be a lot of Democrats who vote in that runoff," state Democratic Chairman Joe Turnham said.
In the congressional runoff, he said, it's impossible to predict whether the Democrats will vote for the "least offensive candidate" or the one they believe is least likely to succeed in November.