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GOP Sees Protest As an Opportunity
"It's hard to tell if this will help the Republican Party win," said Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.), who said he expects a primary challenge from a "tea party" activist. "What it's done is energize people. The question is what will happen with the energized people: Are we going to maintain an effective two-party system or are some of them going to split off?"
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.
According to an August Washington Post-ABC News poll, 18 percent of respondents said they were "angry" about health-care reform efforts. But of that group, only 35 percent had a great deal or good amount of confidence in Republicans in Congress to make the right decisions for the country's future; only four in 10 said they considered themselves strong Republicans.
Matt Kibbe, president of Freedomworks, said that while "more Republicans come closer to our philosophy than Democrats," his group has worked with members of both parties over the years and was sharply critical of some of Bush's fiscal policies. Saturday's list of scheduled speakers includes one Democrat, a state legislator from New Hampshire.
Kibbe said he is not surprised that some GOP lawmakers are seeking to align themselves with the protests. "What we're seeing this year is perhaps a political recognition on their part that being big-government Republicans is not good for them," he said.
Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.