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Don't be too quick to mistake tea party for Perot movement

Although both movements drew people from the two major parties as well as independents, the partisan makeup of the two groups differs. More than two in three Perot voters in 1992 called themselves Democrats or independents. The Post poll of strong tea party supporters found that 49 percent identified themselves as Democrats or independents.

Both movements focused on the deficit. But the DLC study of 1993 found that a majority of Perot voters "believe higher taxes are necessary to address the deficit and health care." No such attitudes prevail among the tea party followers. A "unique brand of economic conservatism" is the movement's hallmark, according to Winston.

"Tea Party members are more concerned about rates of taxation and see more negative consequences to increased taxes," he wrote.

The author of the 1993 DLC report, Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, sees almost no relationship between the Perot movement and today's tea party activism. Nor does he believe there is much mystery to the true allegiance of the tea party movement. Its members are, he believes, the base of the Republican Party by another name.

Perot voters, he argued, were consciously breaking with the two parties. The tea party activists are not. "While the tea party people seem very critical of the party, they are very embracing of the party," he said. "They want to shape and define the Republican Party."

The tea party movement is a reaction against Obama and the Democrats' agenda. Sarah Palin may be trying to become the movement's most prominent voice, but the real motivating force is the president and his policies.

That's the good news for Republicans. At a time when the establishment of the party was demoralized and divided, the tea party activists rose up in opposition to the administration, energizing a conservative movement flat on its back. That energy presents a clear and present threat to the Democrats in November.

The danger is that the tea party movement, with its demands for ideological purity and the behavior of some of those on the fringes, will shrink the GOP's appeal in the long run. Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Robert F. Bennett of Utah and Gov. Charlie Crist of Florida are feeling that heat this spring in their primary campaigns. Everyone else is taking notice.

The Perot movement created a competition between the two major parties. The Democrats have no real hope of attracting tea party activists, given their ideological makeup. The question is whether the Republican Party can harness this new movement's energy without paying too high a price.

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