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'Tea party' movement: Who are they and what do they want?

Tea Party Nation convention starts Thursday. Questions and answers about the tea party movement and how it might affect the 2010 elections.

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It appears to be winning the image war, for one. Forty-one percent of American adults have a positive view of the tea party, compared with 35 percent for the Democrats and 28 percent for the GOP, according to a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

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Tea partyers did transform the healthcare reform debate, some analysts say, after activists stormed town-hall meetings last summer.

Moreover, decisions by Democratic Sens. Christopher Dodd and Byron Dorgan not to run for reelection this year is an acknowledgment that they probably would have faced a tea-party-inspired populist backlash at the polls, say tea party watchers.

In Massachusetts, tea party organizers helped to funnel money and manpower to state Sen. Scott Brown's successful bid for the late Ted Kennedy's seat in the US Senate. The upset victory, wrote conservative columnist Mary Katharine Ham, shows that "Democrats fooled themselves into believing the town-hall/tea party caricature and ignored the feelings of real Americans."

What role do tea party activists envision playing in the 2010 elections?

For a template, look to an emerging showdown in Florida between Gov. Charlie Crist and former state House Speaker Marco Rubio over a US Senate seat. Tea partyers are backing Mr. Rubio and making a horse race out of a GOP primary that the popular Mr. Crist should have strolled through.

"The genie has been let out of the bottle," says Robert Watson, a political scientist at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla

How will the tea party convention advance or hurt the movement?

Recent convention developments have some tea party activists worried the event could tarnish the movement. The decision by two of the convention's key speakers, Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R) of Minn. and Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R) of Tenn., to pull out is giving Americans a glimpse of the internecine fighting in the tea party movement.

Some are also raising questions about convention expenses and its upscale lobster dinner, saying they contradict the movement's thrifty image and bolster arguments that the convention is a GOP ruse to raise millions.

Those who oppose the convention also question the cult of personality around Sarah Palin, the convention's headline speaker, and say it's the people who should be speaking to politicians, not the other way around.

Still, for many the controversy only proves the tea partyers are a grass roots movement with no central authority, and it's creating a forum for just the kind of healthy debate necessary to shape a stronger and more influential movement.

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