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Despite Ron Paul surge, tea party hopes on the ropes in Iowa

As tea party support splinters along more traditional political lines, polls show that hopes for nominating a conservative outsider who embodies constitutional ideals have withered. The question now is whether tea partiers will embrace a more conventional presidential nominee.

By Staff writer / December 31, 2011

Mike Konners, a Michigan Tea Party member, listens to a speaker during a tea party gathering in Dewitt, Michigan, November 12. Tea Party supporters now hold fewer sign-waving rallies, putting more of their effort into congressional and statewide races.

Rebecca Cook/Reuters

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Atlanta

Three days ahead of the Iowa caucus, the tea party as any kind of solid voting bloc is practically nowhere to be found.

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Instead, Rick Santorum, a traditional Christian conservative, is on the rise. And Ron Paul? Although an intellectual keystone of the broader tea party movement that rose to protest government bailouts in 2009, he has consistently trailed far behind as a tea party favorite, suggesting his newfound appeal lies elsewhere. Rick Perry? Michele Bachmann? Herman Cain? According to polls at least: tested, considered, discarded.

A year ago, the tea party coalesced into a ballot box force that helped Republicans regain the House of Representatives while at the same time, as Sen. Dick Lugar (R) of Indiana has charged, undermining a Republican shot at grabbing the Senate. At the time, many tea partiers renewed their aim at President Obama, their undisputed public enemy number one.

How much do you know about the tea party? A quiz.

But oh so much has happened since then. And here on the eve of Republican nominating contests, the tea party savior never quite made it to the ball, forcing the amorphous bloc of conservatives, gun owners, libertarians, evangelicals, and even disgruntled Blue Dog Democrats to break across more traditional lines, leaving no clear front runner and the prospect of backing a more establishment candidate like Mitt Romney closer at hand.

“2012 was supposed to be the year the Tea Party picked a Republican presidential candidate,” writes the American Spectator's Andrew Cline. “It was supposed to be this great, historic opportunity for conservatives to finally get a nominee without compromising. But the two candidates who would probably be judged the most pure of all [Perry and Bachmann] could be days away from seeing their campaigns ended, and the two candidates who are seen as having strayed the most from the party line over the years [Gingrich and Romney] are leading nationally.”

For his part, the Wall Street Journal's Daniel Henninger hardly mentioned the tea party in a recent piece on the “Ron Paul Vote.” He mostly referred to Paul's gains from the polling basement of the race to a potential Iowa winner as the Republican “protest vote” that has whipped back and forth like a threatened snake as voters tested each candidate.

For the man who received so much of the tea party's ire – Barack Obama – the likely failure of the tea party to procure a candidate counts as a victory over a contingent of Americans he only occasionally has addressed by name. More broadly, it speaks to the polling reality that even as the tea party's name recognition has grown, it's likability quotient has dropped, largely thanks to Congressional standoffs taken ostensibly on principle – payroll tax cut, debt limit – that came off to many Americans looking as bull-headed, obstructionist, and counterproductive.

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