By Dan Eggen and Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, September 12, 2009 11:37 AM
With the gathering of tens of thousands of conservative protesters in Washington 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 Saturday 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."
One blogger who writes regularly for Freedomworks, Ross Kaminsky of Boulder, Colo., compared Obama's Tuesday address to U.S. schoolchildren to the tactics of Mao Zedong, Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot and other murderous dictators. "Totalitarians of all stripes put great emphasis on brainwashing the young, and Obama is no exception," he wrote on the group's Web site under the name "rossputin."
At the event on Thursday, activists shouted "Liar!" at the mention of Obama's name, just hours after GOP leaders had condemned Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) for a similar outburst during Obama's speech to Congress the evening before. Protesters also shouted "No more czars!" -- a reference to a line of conservative attack on administration appointments that has emerged from Beck's show.
Indeed, many activists say in interviews that they look more to conservative commentators for leadership than they do elected politicians. Ryan Rhodes, a leader of the "tea party" movement in Iowa, noted that Beck and radio host Rush Limbaugh had come to the cause years ago. Rhodes said he had little enthusiasm for George W. Bush or for McCain, the 2008 GOP presidential candidate.
"There's dissatisfaction with the Republican Party," Rhodes said. "One party could lead by saying, 'I'm for limited government, I'm for stopping this stuff.' There are a lot of people who have talked about it, but nobody has done it."
Tensions between the camps have flared into the open at times. During the first wave of tea-party protests in April, one prominent group in Chicago pointedly said it did not want RNC Chairman Michael S. Steele to speak at an event, even though his staff denied he had been formally asked to appear.
"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.