On display at raucous Republican debate Monday night was the tea party itself

The Republican debate, which was co-sponsored by the Tea Party Express and seemed at times like a sporting event, got out the tea party message: It's a force to be reckoned with.

Mike Carlson/AP
Members of the Tea Party watch during a Republican presidential debate Monday, in Tampa, Fla. Being compared to a sporting event, Monday's Tea Party Express debate was more raucous than previous Republican debates..

Monday night’s GOP candidate debate, co-sponsored by the Tea Party Express, may have been political in its focus but it was “Sports Night” at heart – pure primetime storytelling.

Producers took a page from the playbook of its time-slot competition, “Monday Night Football” ­– from the raucous crowd warm-up act to the pop-singer-wobbly rendition of the national anthem and the booming shout-outs of each player’s, er, participant’s, moniker (the Libertarian! The Businessman! etc).

The subtext of this political soap: A tale about the tea party itself.

“What other splinter party has ever had its own debate on prime-time television?” says Richard Laermer, author of “2011: Trendspotting.” While he knocks the candidates for seeming unprepared for the rough-and-tumble of the questions, he says, “the tea party is telling its story” – that it is a force to be reckoned with – “loud and clear.”

“That CNN would partner with them” sent a broad message of legitimacy, adds Clyde Frazier, professor of political science at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C., saying, “clearly, it also sends a message of influence.”

Monday night underlined what most political observers have understood ever since the midterm elections in 2010, says Alan Abramowitz, professor of political science at Emory University in Atlanta.

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The tea party is “a reflection of the long-term growth of polarization on both ends of the political spectrum, especially in the increased conservatism of the activist base in the Republican Party, and will be a factor in whoever is nominated,” he says, noting that in the most recent Gallup poll, more than half of all Republican voters say they support tea party values.

James Hedtke, author of “Lame Duck Presidents: Myth or Reality,” concurs, saying the tea partyers’ passion and tendency to vote will make them a particular force to be reckoned with during the party’s search for a candidate.

“The passionate forces tend to turn out in the primaries and caucuses,” says Dr. Hedtke, chair of the history and political science department at Cabrini College in Pennsylvania, noting that in most states, voter turnout hovers at around ten percent in this early process. “That makes this group particularly influential in choosing the candidate,” he notes, while at the same time presenting a challenge for the larger Republican Party.

“The danger for the Republican Party,” says Mr. Frazier, “is that to the extent that the tea party is in control, it could drive the party over a cliff,” nominating a candidate that cannot win in a general election.

However some political analysts say the tea party’s influence will wane.

“The tea party supporters will no doubt have some influence on the first few primary contests but they will not be a power throughout the country,” emails Jerry Kremer, a former Democratic congressman from New York and chairman of Empire Government Strategies, a political consulting group. “The more exposure the tea party gets, the more they turn off mainstream and independent voters in both parties.... The tea party supporters won't count in the end.”

The audience responses Monday night and in the previous debate suggest that the eventual nominee is going to have a hard time keeping his or her party coalition together and win over more moderate voters, Seth Masket, political science professor at the Univeristy of Denver, says via email.

He adds, "people who cheer at claims that Social Security is a Ponzi scheme or that the Fed chairman is guilty of treason or that the uninsured should be left to die will simply not be content with a nominee who tacks to the center to try to win swing states.”

It was the audience, not the candidates, who made it clear who was in charge, Mr. Laermer adds, with the rowdy boos and applause creating a soundtrack of tea party values for the night.

The rowdy tone of the debate was a taste of things to come, says Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak, president of Potomac Strategy Group, who has worked with tea party groups.

“This is a group that speaks up for itself,” he says. “This is who they are, they are disruptive.”

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