Can Tea Party Groups Get Behind One Candidate For '12?

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The rising influence of the Tea Party makes it all but certain the grass-roots movement will have a role in the 2012 presidential contest, but what that will be is as open as the GOP field. This week, two of the movement's most prominent Congressional supporters hinted they may make a run at the White House. GOP Rep. Michele Bachmann's announcement Thursday that she may launch an exploratory committee for president and Republican Sen. Rand Paul's suggestion he is mulling a bid are signs the movement that began two years ago is quickly moving onto the presidential stage. POLL: GOP presidential field wide open Tea Party groups across the country demonstrated their effectiveness last fall by helping Republicans recapture the House and grow their numbers in the Senate. However, the various Tea Party groups that pride themselves on having a loose affiliation with each other and no central leader have yet to show whether they can rally behind one candidate to win a national election. "Never happen," said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor at the Cook Political Report. "That doesn't mean in individual states they will not be a force." At the very least, Tea Party activists feel the presence of a Tea Party candidate will force other GOP candidates to lean toward their defining principles. "A high-profile Tea Party candidate will push everyone on the campaign trail in the direction of fiscal responsibility, constitutionally limited government and free markets," said Mark Meckler, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots. The fact that there is no clear front-runner in the race provides an opportunity for a Tea Party candidate to secure the nomination outright, said Frank Donatelli, a Republican political consultant who worked for President Reagan. "There probably is room in our field for a candidate with strong outsider credentials that is anti-establishment and has some links to the Tea Party," Donatelli said. Judson Phillips, founder of the Tea Party Nation, compared the chances of a Tea Party-supported candidate to those of Barack Obama when he was running for the Democratic nomination. Phillips said Obama beat Hillary Rodham Clinton partly because of the grass-roots base that Obama campaign forged through its website. He said the Tea Party, through its various umbrella groups and websites, already has a similar system in place, meaning any Tea Party-supported candidate will have a small army of volunteers ready to go. Who that will be is a mystery. Tea Party voters won't blindly rush to a self-described Tea Party candidate, but will rally behind those who have walked the Tea Party talk, said Whit Ayres, co-founder of Resurgent Republic, a group that promotes conservative free-market principles. Ayres said governors who have balanced their budgets and cut spending could fare better with Tea Party voters than candidates who simply pushed for such initiatives in Washington. "You'd have to give the edge to any candidate who has a demonstrated record of accomplishment in statewide office," Ayres said. Former House majority leader Dick Armey argued it wasn't necessary for Tea Party activists to centralize their electoral power because most of them adhere to a common set of principles that will bind them together. "When the world was swooning over (former Florida governor Charlie) Crist, this movement found Rubio," the Texas Republican said, referring to Tea Party favorite Sen. Marco Rubio. "The idea becomes bigger than the man." He was hopeful that the Republican establishment would embrace the Tea Party message to avoid a split within the GOP ranks heading into the presidential election. Some Tea Party activists are hoping that a fall rally will help them find the ideal candidate. Tea Party groups around the country will be asked to send one delegate each to Kansas City in September for the Freedom Jamboree, said William Temple, a retired federal employee from Brunswick, Ga., who is organizing the event. Each delegate will vote in a straw poll, which Temple hopes will unify support behind the Tea Party candidates for president and vice president heading into 2012. "We don't want another 2008 where we get a John McCain who has to get rescued by a Sarah Palin," Temple said, referring to the GOP's presidential and vice presidential candidates in the 2008 election. "We want our Sarah Palin at the start."