Harnessing ‘tea party’ spirit won’t be easy. Convention is proof.

There’s no doubt that the tea party movement is having political impact. But activists at the Tea Party Convention in Nashville have very different ideas about how to proceed, and there's internal struggle.

By , Staff writer

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    Bill Bruss of Winfield, Ill., gives away plastic bags in the vendor area at the National Tea Party convention in Nashville.
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About 600 ‘tea party’ activists from around the country attended a session on the direction of their nascent populist movement Saturday morning at the first-ever National Tea Party Convention here in Nashville.

Meanwhile, a splinter group plans to stage a guerilla press conference on the grounds of the Opryland Resort to denounce the convention for its cost and failure to represent the tea party spirit.

Protest inside the protest

A protest movement barely a year old protesting itself is part and parcel of the wild and wooly world of the tea party, indicative both of its philosophical (if not racial and class) diversity and the difficulty the literally thousands of independent tea party groups face as they attempt to harness widespread anger and disaffection to change the electoral math in Washington.

The struggle inside this unorthodox convention is being closely watched.

Judging by the tea party movement’s impact on recent races in Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts, both Republicans and Democrats are trying to figure out how to either harness the national disaffection to their benefit – or find weak points to attack.

“There is some sophistication to this movement in their ability to organize and harness technologies, but it’s still like corralling cats,” observes Robert Watson, a political science professor at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla.

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GOP offshoot or non-partisan tour de force?

Some activists see the movement as a way to give voice to the GOP’s grassroots. Others want to see a third party emerge to challenge the two party structure. Others believe the movement can only grow if it stays decentralized and leaderless. Attendees disagree heartily about whether it’s in fact an offshoot of the Republican party or a non-partisan tour de force that will tackle elections one-by-one.

“This is a loose collection of citizen groups with no leader but many voices,” writes the AP’s Liz Sidoti. The Washington Post’s Ann Gerhart and Philip Rucker likened the mood at the convention to a first date as attendees figure out where their fellow tea partiers stand.

Memphis Tea Party Founder Mark Skoda, one of the convention organizers, says the convention is part of an effort to formalize a way forward for the movement by giving it new ways – including a new political action committee – to organize around what he calls five “first principles”: less government, fiscal responsibility, lower taxes, states’ rights, and national security.

“This movement is beginning to mature ... not as a third party but a force to be reckoned with in the traditional party structure,” says Mr. Skoda.

'Holding up signs does not get people elected'

“Let us not be naïve here,” he adds. “The notion of holding up signs does not get people elected.”

But opponents, including the counter-protesters here at Opryland, worry that their disjointed movement is being turned by hucksters into a top-down organization that can be co-opted by the two standing parties. They see as proof the high-price tickets to a convention taking place amidst the koi ponds of the glitzy Opryland conference center.

“This movement is not about the Republican Party. It is a grassroots movement about we the people,” Anthony Shreeve, who said he resigned from the convention steering committee in protest over the convention’s unusual finances, tells Politico’s Kenneth Vogel.

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