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For tea party, midterms present a choice between ideals, pragmatism

"If Republicans are going to complain about subsidizing General Motors, that's a drop in the bucket to farm subsidies," Tomasik said. "But they're backing candidates who are taking large amounts of money from the federal government. That's hypocritical."

Donn Janes, an independent and self-described tea party candidate for the 8th District seat, is also among Fincher's critics. But the challenge of competing against a well-funded candidate -- Fincher has raised nearly $1 million -- was highlighted in Janes's plea for support at the Tipton County Tea Party meeting, where he invited activists to a bowling alley fundraiser. "If you can attend, that would be great," Janes said. "I'm not one of those guys who has a ton of special interest money."

Fincher's supporters are drawn to his social conservatism, including his antiabortion stand, and his commitment to opposing new taxes (he signed the no-tax pledge of the group Americans for Tax Reform). He is more conservative than some of the other Republican candidates, but the filing deadline for the primary hasn't passed yet.

"He is for the Constitution," said Lucy Overstreet, an organizer with the Jackson Madison County TEA Party who is supporting Fincher. "He is for getting the budget balanced. He does not want this health care. He is right in line with the views we are holding true to."

Nance, of the Gibson County Patriots, said, "I don't see the agricultural subsidy thing as an issue at all," adding: "If it were an issue, then we would never elect a farmer to Congress at all. Because basically, most farmers get agriculture subsidies. If they didn't, they'd be broke, and we'd be buying our food from China."

Political newcomer

Fincher, 37, a tall, blue-eyed high school graduate, had never been involved in politics until last July, when a friend asked him to run against 11-term Democratic incumbent John Tanner. He had never been to Washington until he met with Republican leaders last year, and he didn't own a BlackBerry -- though he admits he loves the one he has now.

National Republicans, meanwhile, were downright giddy about Fincher's strengths: poise and charm honed over years on the gospel circuit (he sings with a family foursome); a rich Tennessee drawl speckled with country aphorisms (he calls his fundraiser, James Wallace, Mr. Jimmy); and a surname with more than two centuries of local prominence. They saw a Washington "outsider" out of central casting. The icing on the cake was Fincher's ability to raise money.

"It was like, 'Oh my God, I love this,' " recalled Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.), who helped recruit Fincher into the race.

Unlike the Republican Party, which spends a lot of time, money and effort to find good candidates for Congress, local tea party groups are too new or unorganized to do much recruiting. Instead, they have to choose among inexperienced volunteers or the more polished candidates selected by the national parties.

GOP strategists told Fincher that he would need to raise $1 million to challenge Tanner. He quickly took in more than $300,000, an accomplishment that many observers agree was at least one factor in Tanner's decision in December to retire. Now, Fincher has nearly $1 million in the bank, an astonishing sum for any political newcomer.

'A fair system'

The one possible chink is the farm subsidy issue, a topic that makes Fincher and his team sensitive. According to data compiled by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, Fincher and his wife, Lynn, received about $2.5 million in subsidies between 1995 and 2006. But Fincher said that without that money, his farm would have shut down years ago.

He also said the subsidies come with conditions, such as when he was required to spend thousands of dollars building an earthen terrace to control erosion. And without the money, he said, American farmers couldn't compete with countries that subsidize fuel and fertilizer more generously than the United States.

"People are quick to say with their mouth full, 'Well, the American farmer is on the dole,' " Fincher said. "But a loaf of bread is two bucks when it could be 10 bucks. I know what it is with the government in my business. We would be all for not having government in our business, but we need a fair system."

Tomasik plans to keep beating the drum through November, a potential spoiler in a race in which the Democrat, state Sen. Roy Herron, had amassed a war chest of $655,000 as of Dec. 31. If Janes, the independent, draws even a few percentage points of support in the general election, that could make the difference in a close contest.

Fincher is acutely aware of this possibility, pleading at tea party meetings for activists to coalesce behind the strongest candidate -- him -- or risk a GOP loss in November.

He is also courting the movement in more subtle ways. The Democratic agenda in Washington is "a power grab that would have made King George blush," he declared to a crowd of 100 during his kickoff tour last week. "Folks, I mean to keep my word. And if I don't, I'll give you my address and some rope. That's real accountability."

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