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GOP Now Embraces Conservative Groups' Protest

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By Dan Eggen and Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, September 12, 2009

With tens of thousands of conservative protesters expected to gather in Washington on Saturday for a "Taxpayer March on D.C.," Republican officials are attempting to capitalize on a movement that lately has galvanized anti-Obama activists more effectively than the party's elected leaders in Washington.

Searching for ways to compete with Democrats after two consecutive electoral drubbings, Republicans have moved past earlier uncertainty about the protesters, who organized nationwide rallies this summer that have threatened Democratic health-care plans and eroded President Obama's standing with the public.

Several key Republican lawmakers, including House GOP Chairman Mike Pence of Indiana, have helped to drum up support for the march and are slated to deliver speeches to the crowd.

But top Republican strategists and many party observers also worry about the impact that the most extreme protesters might have on the party's image, including those who carry swastika signs or obsess over the veracity of Obama's Hawaiian birth.

Mark McKinnon, a former adviser to Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and other Republicans, said there is an "opportunity for Republicans" to tap into legitimate fears about an overreaching federal government. But he said that "right-wing nutballs are aligning themselves with these movements" and are dominating media coverage.

"It's bad for Republicans because in the absence of any real leadership, the freaks fill the void and define the party," McKinnon said.

Saturday's march is sponsored by the same loose-knit coalition of groups that helped to organize health-care protests over the summer and anti-tax rallies in the spring. They include the Tea Party Patriots, ResistNet and Freedomworks, a Washington-based organization headed by former House majority leader Richard Armey (R-Tex.). The march has also been heavily publicized by Fox News host Glenn Beck as part of his "9-12 Project."

The groups behind the protests include a broad array of self-described libertarians, independents and other factions, who have emerged as a force largely independent of GOP leaders in Washington. Some of that is by design: Leading activists among the conservative groups say they remain suspicious of a party that endorsed runaway deficits, a Wall Street bailout and other Bush-era policies they found objectionable.

"It is good to see that there are some Republican elected officials, especially people from Congress right now, who are paying attention to us and interested in what we're doing," said Jenny Beth Martin of Atlanta, a national coordinator for Tea Party Patriots who was previously active in GOP politics in Georgia. "But there's a sense of distrust among many people who have considered themselves Republicans in the past. When they were in the majority and were in the White House, they squandered that opportunity."

In addition to Pence, Thursday's kickoff rally featured House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (Ohio), Minority Whip Eric Cantor (Va.) and other top House Republicans. Pence, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and several other lawmakers are to speak at Saturday's event. Republican officials will be distributing literature and collecting e-mail addresses in hopes of attracting more supporters to the GOP.

Also, lawmakers such as Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) plan to attend "tea party" protests in their home districts.

The appearances underscore the increasing efforts by conservative Republicans to embrace the anti-Obama protests, even as others remain uncomfortable with the more extreme elements that frequent such gatherings. Some protesters this year have loudly disrupted community meetings, brought guns to Obama events and likened the president to Adolf Hitler.


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