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'Tea Party' eyes big prize: the 2010 midterm elections

The year-old tea party movement is growing. But it’s fractious, and that may undercut conservative strength for the midterm elections.

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Utah: Sen. Bob Bennett (R) presents perhaps the most striking example of an incumbent who could lose his seat because of tea party opposition. He is hardly a moderate, but he did support the original Wall Street bailout and has worked with Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon on healthcare legislation.

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In this cycle, that could be enough to do him in. Senator Bennett may not even emerge from the May nominating convention with a spot on the November ballot.

"Bennett is 'establishment,' so to the tea party he's part of the problem," says Jennifer Duffy, Senate analyst for the Cook Political Report.

Despite the impact tea partyers have had in political races, leaders are still fighting the notion that their movement is amorphous and therefore less than legitimate.

In early April, a coalition of 23 tea party organizations formed a National Tea Party Federation aimed at coordinating messaging and addressing image problems in the media. The fact that one major tea party group, Tea Party Patriots, declined to join may just further the idea that the movement lacks organizational definition.

But, say supporters, that's the whole point. The tea party is a bottom-up, grass-roots phenomenon that will remain energized only if members feel empowered and not controlled by a central authority, they say.

"I think the formation of the federation is more a symbolic gesture," says Mr. Kibbe of FreedomWorks, which joined the group. "Even though there are different groups, different tactics, and different memberships, we're all sort of in this together."

And new groups are still forming. Mike Glantz, a retired businessman in Clermont, Fla., a suburb of Orlando, had his first meeting in late March, expecting 30 or 40 people to show up. He got 180. For him, the driving issue is health-care reform – and specifically, cuts to Medicare Advantage. For the younger members, it's the federal debt and jobs.

"This was the first time I saw a group in public be so [upset] about what's going on in Washington," Mr. Glantz says.

Glantz also objects to the image of tea partyers on TV as "a bunch of stupid rednecks." In his group, he has retired professionals, small-business men, schoolteachers. "One guy is a licensed engineer," he says. "Sounds like a pretty bright guy to me."

Some tea partyers don't need any leader at all to be active. Laurie Whitehead of Alexandria, Va., says in an e-mail that her leader is "PRINCIPLE!" "I stand with anyone who stands for our Constitution (original intent), our freedom (including free markets), and says NO to reckless government spending and socialism!"