WASHINGTON/CHICAGO With their favored candidates for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination lagging or out of the race, many U.S. Tea Party activists are shifting focus to the struggle for control of the U.S. Senate.
The fizz has gone out of the presidential contest for some supporters of the fiscally conservative movement now that former Alaska governor Sarah Palin is not running and Texas Governor Rick Perry and congresswoman Michele Bachmann are slipping in polls.
"No one is going to get perfect in a general election candidate. That is why we think the Senate is a better place to focus," said Matt Kibbe, president and chief executive of the libertarian FreedomWorks, a Tea Party group.
In the 2010 mid-term elections, Tea Party opposition to President Barack Obama's policies played a big role in slashing the Democrats' majority in the 100-member Senate to just six seats and eliminating their majority in the House of Representatives.
With 23 of the 33 Senate seats up for grabs next year now held by Democrats, and a wave of public hostility to incumbents, Tea Party activists said they looked forward to more Republican gains in 2012.
"We'll maintain the House without a problem. We absolutely have to take back the Senate and focus on that and not let presidential politics consume all of our time and energy," said Amy Kremer, chairwoman of the California-based Tea Party Express Political Action Committee.
Some of the eight to 10 Senate seats seen as very competitive next year are in Wisconsin, Florida and Ohio, states where Tea Party groups had a big impact in 2010 and during state legislative sessions, fueling optimism about next year, Kibbe said.
"If the issues are the economy and jobs, the burden of spending and the national debt, those are swing issues that Tea Partiers care about most -- there is a nice confluence in what motivates independent voters and what motivates Tea Partiers," he said.
WORRIES ABOUT ROMNEY
Fueling the Tea Party's disenchantment with the Republican presidential race are suspicions that front-runner Mitt Romney is too moderate and not committed to core conservative causes. The Tea Party favors lower spending and smaller government.
The former Massachusetts governor has been attacked by conservatives for introducing a healthcare program in the state that many say was a model for the sweeping healthcare overhaul enacted by Obama in 2010.
"People are definitely not rallying to Romney," said Chris Littleton, co-founder of the Ohio Liberty Council, a coalition of about 80 Tea Party groups in Ohio, a swing state considered a must-win for any Republican presidential candidate.
"I cannot recall a single conversation I've had with anyone who is conservative and liberty-minded where that person supports Romney," he said.
Some are shifting allegiance to Herman Cain, who has gained in recent polls and appeals to Tea Party activists with a plan to drastically overhaul the tax code, but Cain has yet to prove he can assemble the strong campaign team or attract the level of donations he would need to secure the nomination.
Romney's campaign said his platform of reduced taxes, lower spending and limited government would appeal to Republicans, the Tea Party and even some Democrats, and that he would continue to reach out to all voters.
In the end, Tea Party voters are expected to put aside ideological differences with Romney if he does become the nominee, because their primary goal in next year's presidential race is denying Obama a second term.
"The Tea Party to some extent, though not completely, was born in reaction to the Obama movement. Certainly their number one priority is going to be to beat Barack Obama in the fall. There's no question about that," said Doug Heye, a political consultant and former Republican National Committee spokesman.
Sal Russo, chief strategist and co-founder of the Tea Party Express, said he viewed all the Republican candidates as fiscally conservative enough for the Tea Party. Besides, he added, in the end the movement's supporters want a candidate who can win.
"It certainly doesn't do us any good to run and lose," he said.
(Editing by Paul Simao)