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HANNIBAL, Missouri (Reuters) - Some Tea Partiers admit mistakes were made. Others are quick to describe the movement's recent efforts in the political arena as not quite ready for prime time.
But the conservative upstart is determined to shed its amateur status. To that end, members are literally going to school. They are taking part in training sessions, some of which are underwritten by established conservative groups like American Majority, the Leadership Institute and Americans for Prosperity.
Indeed, an up-close look at the Tea Party in 15 states over a three-month period during this summer's political primaries showed a group striving to make the transition from unruly protesters to effective activists. Their near term goal is to gain a foothold at the most basic levels of government -- from city councils to state assemblies.
If they succeed, say political analysts, they could be a significant factor well beyond the November 2 midterm elections and could help shape the 2012 presidential race.
During one recent class held in Hannibal, Missouri by American Majority, Beka Romm, the group's director for Kansas, tells her audience to hold U.S. politicians' feet to the fire. Above all, the ones they like.
"If you look at that chart," she said, pointing at a screen showing deficits under U.S. presidents stretching back half a century to John F. Kennedy, "You can see that some of the people we like have run large deficits."
The numbers show an estimated budget deficit of 7.8 percent of gross domestic product in 2010 under President Barack Obama, which is in line with most nonpartisan forecasts.
But the chart also makes plain that the last three Republican occupants of the White House -- George W. Bush, George H. W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, a GOP deity -- ran up some hefty fiscal shortfalls themselves. As a percentage of gross domestic product, Obama holds the record with Reagan and Bush Sr tied for second place.
"We have to acknowledge what happens to people, even the ones we like, when they get to Washington," Romm told 18 Tea Party activists gathered in a hotel conference room here in Hannibal on the banks of the mighty Mississippi. "It shows why we must hold them accountable. It's also why you don't get to go on vacation on November 3. Because on November 3, you start holding politicians accountable."
That is not necessarily good news for the Republican Party. The GOP is expected to be the beneficiary of the Tea Party's assault on the midterm elections. But for all their shared political DNA, the two parties are by no means always or even regularly on the same page.
In fact, the Tea Party has in some cases forced the GOP to spend more in primaries and could end up helping Democrats in districts where they field their own independent candidate, splintering the conservative vote.
But if Republicans are frustrated, so be it, say many Tea Party members. They add that if the conservative establishment finds them a nuisance now, just wait.
Politically, the movement sees itself as being at a crossroads. Born in the wake of bailouts in the early days of Obama's presidency, Tea Party groups held protest rallies against government stimulus spending in the spring and summer of 2009, as the Obama administration scrambled to avert what many feared was the onset of an economic depression.
Their political testing ground was healthcare, and they didn't fare so well. A fierce battle followed the president's reform prescriptions -- derided by opponents as "Obamacare." There were countless noisy confrontations with elected officials at town hall meetings in August 2009. To the party's consternation, the bill passed in March.
That is not to say the Tea Party has not scored some big successes. Conservative Republican Senate nominees Rand Paul (Kentucky) and Ken Buck (Colorado) have both attributed their upset of establishment candidates in the primaries directly to the involvement of Tea Party activists, while conservative get-out-the-vote drives also helped Sharron Angle in Nevada and Joe Miller in Alaska do the same.
But the Tea Party's overall impact in primaries ahead of these potentially momentous midterms has been mixed. More often than not, its candidates were brushed aside by a well-heeled, more experienced Republican machine. In many cases, the upstart movement was its own worst enemy. Local rival groups often fielded multiple candidates, splitting their own vote and allowing moderate candidates to win easily.
Despite their close identification with the GOP, many in the movement are deeply suspicious of establishment Republicans. They are especially wary of the "Tea Party Caucus" established in July by dozens of Republican members of the House led by Michele Bachmann of Minnesota.
"They're just the same old neocon hacks trying to rebrand themselves and curry favor with conservative voters," said Matt Collins, who describes himself as a "libertarian with a small 'l'" and has been active in Tea Party groups in the Nashville area.
Many Tea Partiers are going back to the drawing board and working out where to go from here. "We've made plenty of mistakes along the way," said Dan Blanchard, president of the Louisville Grassroots Tea Party, who works at a Christian counseling group. "But that's okay because we're amateurs. Every time we make a mistake we learn from it and move on."
The biggest lesson was perhaps knowing what they didn't know. A lot of groups are moving beyond loud protest rallies into the nitty-gritty of community organizing, get-out-the-vote drives, education and fundraising. "It's not a very sexy process, but we have moved on from the angry rallies," said Chris Littleton, head of the Cincinnati Tea Party. "You can't sustain that level of emotion for too long, it's too draining."
"Rallies take up time and cost money," he added. "What strategic objective is achieved by holding a rally? Nothing has changed as a result, so we're looking beyond that."
And after focusing primarily on national races, many are now setting their sights on state and local politics to affect politics from the ground up. "No matter what the campaign is for, from school board to U.S. Senate, we're going to be taking a hard look at the candidates," said Randy Keller, a committee member of the Bowling Green Tea Party in southern Kentucky, who refers to himself as a recovering Republican.
But while the movement continues to grow, it also faces two key challenges. The first lies in whether it will truly hold Republican politicians' to their word if the party wins big in November as failure to do so could prove fatal.
"The movement will lose credibility and won't be sustainable if they don't hold politicians accountable," said Joe Calomino, the Illinois state director of conservative group Americans for Prosperity, which is providing logistical support and training for Tea Party activists across this state and others ahead of the midterms.
The other challenge is to reduce the infighting that is a common feature of the Tea Party movement. "Tea Party groups like to say they have no structure, but that's wrong," J.B. Williams, a founding member of the United States Patriots Union, a new group that seeks to work with individual conservative activists instead of Tea Party groups. "The movement has a structure and it's a bad one. For all their bluster about working together, the Tea Party movement has consisted of 'my Tea Party is better than yours, you can join my group but I won't join yours.'"
"The movement's biggest mistake has been its failure to unify," Williams added. "Until Tea Party people accept responsibility for that and work together, nothing will change."
And if events at the recent Michigan state Republican Party convention -- held the same day as conservative commentator Glenn Beck's rally in Washington, DC -- are any indication, Tea Party disunity may increasingly affect the Grand Old Party.
If nothing else, the Tea Party is proving resilient.
"We expected after such a major defeat like the passage of healthcare reform that Tea Party activists would feel dejected," said Anne Sorock, chief researcher at Chicago-based Sam Adams Alliance, which promotes free-market principles and has been conducting research on the Tea Party movement. "We were surprised by just how energized they were."
They're also growing. Tea Party Patriots, an umbrella group for the movement, has 2,800 member groups, up from around 1,000 in January. Mark Meckler, a national coordinator for the Patriots, estimates that 20 million people belong to one of them.
The Rhode Island Tea Party is focusing on forming new groups in every town in the state. The most recent addition was the Lincoln Tea Party, which had its inaugural meeting on August 30, 2010. The Cincinnati Tea Party now has 20 sub-groups across the city. The Heartland Tea Party was formed near Lexington, Kentucky, in July.
David Crow of the Faulkner County Tea Party in Arkansas said new members sign up at every meeting. "Our belief is that in order to have influence we need to grow our membership," Crow said.
Richard Viguerie, author of 'Conservatives Betrayed: How George W. Bush and Other Big Government Republicans Hijacked the Conservative Cause,' compares the response of Tea Partiers to healthcare legislation to anti-war protesters being beaten by the police in the 1960s.
"I saw them being beaten and I remember thinking 'that will teach you,'" he said. "But when you get beat up physically or otherwise, it radicalizes you. Those anti-war protesters redoubled their efforts and the same thing happened to members of the Tea Party movement when they lost the healthcare battle."
"Getting beat up radicalized them."
Healthcare reform was the last straw for Tom Lockett, 49, a veteran and teacher at a community college, who decided to run for county clerk in Marion County, Missouri. "We need to stop government from taking over our country," he said at a fundraiser in Hannibal in late July. "I figured the best way to do that was to run for office."
The Tea Party's energy has boosted the GOP because while many Tea Partiers are angry at the Republicans' track record, they are closer to the Republicans than Democrats on the political spectrum. "Republican voters in Illinois have been dying off," said AFP's Calomino, who spent many years as a GOP campaigner. "If it weren't for the Tea Party the GOP would struggle to win a majority in the state."
The Patriots Union's Williams echoes that sentiment. He said the Tea Party came along at an opportune moment for the Republican Party after electoral setbacks in 2006 and 2008. "After 2008 the Republican establishment was struggling to raise money and motivate its base," he said. "The Tea Party solved both of those problems."
The boost for the GOP, however, has not come without a cost to mainstream Republicans. Moderates like Arizona Senator John McCain have been pulled to the right and the party has been forced to spend money to ward off unwelcome challenges. In McCain's case, he spent almost $21 million in the primaries to defeat conservative opponent J.D. Hayworth, nearly 10 times the $2.14 million he spent on his entire reelection campaign in 2004.
The bigger problem for the GOP may lie ahead. Even a few Tea Party Republicans in the 100-member Senate could impact the GOP. "If four or five conservative senators decide to mount their own filibuster against the GOP leadership, it would cause serious problems for the Republican Party," said Steven Schier, a politics professor at Carleton College in Minnesota.
"The short-term goal is to get the gavel out of Nancy's hand," the Cincinnati Tea Party's Littleton said, in reference to Democratic House Majority leader Nancy Pelosi. "Then we can focus on the GOP."
The midterms are still two months away, but already a lot of Tea Partiers are looking beyond the elections and working out where to go from here.
"The movement has reached the stage where people are looking around and trying to work out where they want to take this," said Ben Cunningham, spokesman for the Tennessee Tax Revolt, a group formed around the turn of the century. Cunningham has advised some Tea Party groups and has "adjudicated a number of disputes between Tea Party leaders."
That process has many Tea Party groups trying to work out what form their political involvement should take. "Some Tea Party groups are still convinced they don't have to be involved in the political process to change the system," American Majority President Ned Ryun said. "But that's a mistake."
He said new leaders are stepping forward who are not focused on protest rallies. "Many in the new generation of leadership looked at what happened last August and saw that healthcare passed despite all those protests, Ryun said. "They've realized what they need to do is run the politicians responsible out of office."
Tea Party supporters are investigating setting up their own political action committees (PACs), 501(c)3s or 501(c)4s (nonprofit corporations or associations). Some already have.
The Rhode Island Tea Party has formed a 501(c)4 called Empower Rhode Island and a PAC called the People's PAC of the Rhode Island Tea Party. Leader Colleen Conley said she plans a "high-end" fundraiser for October 3 to help underfunded Tea Party candidates for the state assembly.
The group is also setting up a lobbying committee, though it acknowledges this is a firmly Democratic state. "We face a huge, uphill battle that will take many years," Conley said. "This is an extremely blue state. We've had 70 years of one-party rule and the conservative side of the aisle has been scattered, incompetent and useless."
American Majority's Ryun said conservative donors are beginning to look at putting seed money into individual Tea Party groups, but will only go for those that have a proven track record of success.
"Donors can get a lot more bang for their buck if they give $10,000 each to a lot of small groups rather than $1 million to one large group," he said. "But the Tea Party has to be effective this fall to prove they're not paper tigers. Then the best organized ones will be able to raise money."
Many groups like the Kentucky 912 Project are going back to school, providing lessons on the constitution and the founding fathers. "We've gone from being protesters to activists and educators," group leader Eric Wilson said.
Others like the Patriots Union or AnyStreet are focusing on getting individuals and communities to work together rather than work specifically with any one Tea Party. "If we want to break the left's hegemony, we're not going to reach ordinary Americans by launching a new conservative blog," said Christopher Cook, head of AnyStreet. "The way to reach them is through community organizing."
The August 28 Michigan GOP state convention illustrated the Tea Party potential strengths and weaknesses -- and what the movement may portend for the Republican Party.
Members of the Michigan Tea Party Alliance, a coalition of groups across the state, won a large number of precinct delegate posts in the August 3 Republican primary. Ultimately, some 800 of 2,000 convention delegates were estimated to be Tea Partiers.
On the eve of the convention, around 600 of them packed the Capitol City Baptist Church in Lansing suburb Holt to vet candidates ahead of the convention. Delegates loudly and cheerfully greeted Gene Clem, a spokesman for the Michigan Tea Party Alliance.
"I'm just busting with pride to see all you people here tonight," said a beaming, gum-chewing Clem. "We've had some successes and failures over the past year. We've celebrated our successes and learned from our failures, and we never, ever quit."
"At first they dismissed us as kooks, then they smeared us as racists, extreme right-wing nutjobs and as a mob ... But if you're taking a lot of flak, you must be on target."
But within minutes of the start of the candidates forum the atmosphere in the church turned hostile, as differences between groups led to much yelling and bitterness. Instead of a unified group, the gathering looked more like the hostile town hall meetings on healthcare reform from August 2009.
At the Michigan state convention, the sheer number of delegates (the most since 1994 when the Republicans won the House for the first time in 50 years) overwhelmed the state GOP's ability to register delegates. The sleepy atmosphere changed when it came time to vote for lieutenant governor, a post selected by the party's gubernatorial nominee and usually rubber stamped by the convention.
Tea Party delegates disapproved of moderate gubernatorial nominee Rick Snyder's choice Brian Calley, who was seen as a RINO -- or Republican in name only. Then, with little notice, some Tea Party groups proposed their own candidate, a conservative named Bill Cooper. Unprepared for the change in agenda, flustered Republican state officials proposed a show of hands. With many delegates still unregistered -- making a show of hands unrepresentative -- the atmosphere immediately turned hostile as Tea Party delegates booed loudly and aggressively.
In the end, Cooper announced he was withdrawing his nomination. Tension in the basketball stadium gradually subsided, though Tea Party delegates like Rod Merrill of the Ludington Tea Party said days later he was still "steamed" at the GOP establishment's behavior.
Before leaving the stage Cooper said: "We can't just accept when candidates tell us they're conservatives. We must demand that they are conservatives." Tea Party delegates and conservatives roared their approval. Outside the hall, Cooper said he had acted in the interest of party unity. "These events have been conflict-free for years, but conflict can be good as well as bad," he said, in between being congratulated by delegates for his grand gesture. "And sooner or later we will have to have a debate about what it means to be a conservative."
Additional reporting by Bernie Woodall, David Morgan and David Schwartz; editing by Jim Impoco and Claudia Parsons