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Can the GOP and 'tea party' activists get along?

They've clashed in some places. But in Arkansas the old guard GOP and the tea party are united, so far, in a bid to oust Sen. Blanche Lincoln.

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“We are aggressively pursuing Blanche Lincoln to get her out of office, and that is our common goal” with the GOP, says the tea party member from rural Arkansas. “The most effective thing is to move into the Republican Party instead of splitting a conservative vote. We need to get involved with them and guide them back.”

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The Arkansas Republican Party is taking care to extend its hand to tea party activists. Doyle Webb, state GOP chairman, notes that one Republican county chairman is also a tea party chair.

“In our leadership and private meetings,” he says in a phone interview, “we have all agreed to be encouragers and accepting. We want the party to bring in those differences.... The tea party brings a more activist wing into an older GOP, which is in turn exciting and activating the lumbering elephant.”

Martin, with “Bye Bye Blanche,” is Exhibit A. Though a regular voter over the years, Martin never got involved in party politics until last fall, when she started attending healthcare town-hall meetings. By December, she was standing in front of 500 people at a tea party holiday bash in a Little Rock hotel, announcing the Facebook group.

The grass-roots buzz at that event was reminiscent of the early Obama-for-president movement. Pamphlets about how to run for office dotted a table in the room. Volunteers circulated with sign-in sheets to gather contact information. Donations were collected at the door.

Only a few of the local GOP establishment attended, but from out of town came Richard Armey, former GOP House majority leader, whose group, Freedomworks, leads the national tea party charge.

“I wish Blanche Lincoln could see this crowd,” Mr. Armey said, to cheers. “This is organized in Arkansas by citizens of Arkansas for the citizens of Arkansas.”

Most of the GOP candidates aspiring for Lincoln’s seat mingled at the event. So did Tim Griffin, a former US attorney and Bush White House official who is running for Congress against Rep. Vic Snyder (D).

Tea partyers share many of the same conservative issues – about job creation, the national debt, personal liberties – as Republicans, he says, and that can only help the GOP.

“The unity of that energy is where the power will lie in 2010,” Mr. Griffin says. “A lot of what you have seen with third-party groups – like the tea party – these folks are conservative and they are fed up with people in Washington who are not working for them, but against them.”

The election will tell whether a majority of Arkansas voters see Lincoln that way. For now, the moderate Democrat is considered at risk of losing her seat.

The 'tea party' movement that burst upon the scene last year is destined to play a big role in this year's midterm elections. Whether it will help the Republican Party or hurt it by pulling the GOP far to the right is the big question.

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