'Tea Party' Members Offer a Ground-level View

A year ago, the political hurricane known as the "Tea Party" erupted in made-for-YouTube confrontations at congressional town hall meetings on the pending health care overhaul.

This August, the movement's supporters seem less rowdy — perhaps because they're pounding the pavement and dialing phones, trying to alter the balance of power in Congress in the fall elections. While Tea Party-favored candidates have lost in contests including the California GOP Senate primary, they have won Republican Senate primaries in Colorado, Kentucky, Nevada and Utah.

They say it's just the start.

"We're not in this to make noise and to saber-rattle," says Dan Blanchard of the Louisville Tea Party, which helped Rand Paul claim the Senate nomination in Kentucky. "We're in this thing to win."

The test now: Whether Paul and others can prevail under even tougher scrutiny and win over the broader electorate that votes in November. That will require a sustained commitment from a network that revels in its bottom-up nature and loose organization.

"That's part of the verve and vibrancy," says Rep. Michele Bachmann. At the first meeting of the congressional Tea Party Caucus last month, the Minnesota Republican underscored the primacy of the grass roots by having members of the public sit on the dais normally reserved for members of Congress. Lawmakers sat in the audience.

Because the Tea Party is so determinedly decentralized, USA TODAY reached out to activists from New York to California, Ohio to Louisiana to get a sense of the breadth and depth of the movement's motivations, priorities, concerns and aspirations.

While it's difficult to generalize about any group, especially one still in evolution, the interviews provide a ground-level glimpse in their own words of the passions that drive the movement.

Among consistent themes, they:

Keep it local. Chris Littleton, head of a Tea Party group in Cincinnati, says the activists he knows are driven by "this sense that you have to own your backyard first."

"I can't fix what is happening in D.C.," Littleton says. "But I can fix what is happening in my backyard. I can affect my township, my county, my city, my congressional district and my state."

Those interviewed reject the idea of national leaders or centralized organizations running things.

"The normal thing that people are looking for is some sort of organized structure, driven from the top down," says Mark Lloyd, chairman of the Lynchburg Tea Party in Virginia. "But ... it's more of an attitude, and the attitude is of course just visceral patriotism, and a focus on limited government, fiscal responsibility, constitutional government or governance and personal liberties."

Focus on fiscal issues. These Tea Party supporters say they emphasize fiscal conservatism and limited government over social issues.

In founding the congressional Tea Party Caucus, Bachmann says she focused on three ideas that she thinks unite the "various flavors" of the movement: "Act within the Constitution; we're taxed enough already; and don't spend more than you bring in."

"We don't get involved in the abortion issue, the gay-marriage issue, because we feel like that's when it starts dividing people," says Nita Thomas, leader of a group in Cincinnati.

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