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Tea Party Tally

Where did the tea party go? Into the trenches

National polls show tea party support withering among some Americans, but don't count the 'taxed enough already' crowd out just yet. They are crafting a from-the-ground-up strategy for 2012.

By Staff writer / December 16, 2011

A man dressed as Captain America poses as dozens of tea party supporters rallied in July near the US Capitol, in opposition to raising the national debt ceiling. Tea party backers have been holding fewer sign-waving rallies, a hallmark of their early opposition to bank bailouts and President Obama's health-care reform. But the movement is regrouping.

Jonathan Ernst/REUTERS/File

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The tea party energy that drove Republicans to a House victory last year seems for now the high point of the populist movement of "constitutional conservatives" that began with a TV reporter's rant about a proposed mortgage bailout in early 2009.

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Taking heat for the congressional standoff over the debt ceiling this summer, and seen by many Americans as dangerously inflexible and even a cloak for a resurgence of xenophobia and social conservatism, the tea party has seen its general support dwindle in the polls even as its once boisterous street protests have quieted.

Yet for folks like Bill Evelyn, a founder of the State of Georgia Tea Party, the revolution has only begun. Having learned lessons from the past two years – including the necessity of vetting big-office candidates and trying to channel endorsements to avoid splitting tickets – the loosely organized tea party movement has thrown its anchor in the muddy trenches of local politics, reviving the GOP's moribund precinct nomination system, grooming candidates from the ground up, and setting into motion an audacious ground game patterned in part on the Democrat playbook of door-to-door canvasing and kitchen-table convincing.

As the tea party has become more politically savvy and organized, the problem activists face is mounting pushback from Democrats as well as establishment factions of the Republican Party, which have been at least partly able to raise questions about whether a tea party nation is really what America wants.

"When this whole thing started," says Mr. Evelyn, "the energy was unbelievable, but people didn't know about hard money, they didn't know the Bill of Rights was meant as a restraint on the federal government, and they voted for someone just because they had an 'R' or 'D' next to their name. Let me tell you, it's not like that now." He adds, "There's a radical change going on in the country, and the only people who don't realize it are in Washington."

Unseating President Obama remains a top tea party priority. While national media attention has focused on the shrinking field of Republican presidential candidates and the extent of their tea party bona fides, tea party activists say their strategy is to pack Republican precincts – the 1,500 building blocks of the US political party system. By doing so, the tea party hopes to win seats in state legislatures, the House, and, ultimately, the US Senate, where Democrats hold a four-seat majority and where 23 seats are up for grabs next year.

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