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Election 2010 all about tea party? It's more: It's year of the outsider.

The tea party has energized Republicans, even if it also complicates life for the GOP after Nov. 2. But the movement is actually part of a larger Election 2010 trend -- one that features the most diverse GOP field in history.

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Another measure shows no love lost for either party: Fifty-eight percent of Americans believe the nation needs a third major party, a tie for the highest score since Gallup began asking the question in 2003. Among tea partyers, the figure is 62 percent, which raises the question of whether this newly energized segment of the electorate will try to form its own party.

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For now, the Republicans have mostly succeeded in absorbing the tea party into their ranks. The New York Times identifies 138 tea party candidates, all Republicans, running for the House or Senate. Thirty-three have a good to excellent chance of winning their House races and eight could reach the Senate. A handful of tea partyers are running as third-party candidates, and could serve as spoilers for the GOP nominees, though some are suspected of being Democratic plants.

Most interesting are the races in which mainstream Republicans defeated tea party candidates in the primary, and how the tea party groups are responding to them. According to a Bloomberg poll, one-third of likely voters support the tea party, and of them, 4 out of 5 plan to vote Republican.

But GOP nominees are on notice. In the closely watched Fifth Congressional District in Virginia, mainstream Republican candidate Robert Hurt, who defeated multiple tea partyers to win his primary, has signed various pledges that commit him to vote essentially the tea party line – for example, against any tax increases and for defunding of Obama's health-care reform.

If elected, Mr. Hurt will operate under the watchful eye of the Virginia Tea Party Patriot Federation, a coalition of 33 tea party groups and 9-12 organizations (grass-roots groups started by Glenn Beck) across the state. How long does Hurt have to get it right?

"A week!" says Virginia federation board member Karen Hurd, with a laugh. "Robert Hurt is basically on loan."

In other words, if Hurt is perceived to have "strayed," he can expect a tea party primary challenge in 2012.

The recent convention in Richmond of the Virginia federation brought together more than 2,000 tea party activists from around the state – the largest such gathering in the country to date.

They met not just to get revved up for Nov. 2, but to build for the future. Participants were handed a "federation initiative" – a package of measures for the state legislature designed to promote the tea party's principles of limited government, federalism, individual liberty, and free markets.

Virginia tea partyers take federalism seriously. They know that working closer to home can pay off big, and have ripple effects that reach Washington. In January, members will hold a lobby day in Richmond for the measures.

Most eyebrow-raising at the Oct. 8-9 tea party convention was the posture of Virginia's top two elected officials, who participated not as keynote speakers but as panelists, taking questions written by tea party activists. Virginia's political universe appeared upside down. Yet some tea partyers fear being co-opted by the Republican Party.

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