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Gauging the scope of the tea party movement in America

A writer tags along with a Tea Party group from Ohio on their way to Washington to learn what the movement wants -- and why.

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If anything tied the groups together, it was what motivated their members to participate. Virtually all said that economic concerns were a factor, and nearly as many cited a general mistrust of government. Opposition to President Obama and Democratic policies was a big factor, but only slightly more so than dissatisfaction with mainstream Republican leaders.

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Eleven percent said that Obama's race, religion or ethnic background was either a "very important" or "somewhat important" factor in the support their group has received.

While the tea party groups may lack a unifying direction or vision at the moment, the results show that they are ripe for action. A remarkable 86 percent of local leaders said most of their members are new to political activity, suggesting that they could be turned into a potent grass-roots force heading into the 2012 elections.

Of course, their general lack of interest in politics also suggests that they could just as easily recede, particularly if the economy improves.

The tea party's biggest successes this year have come only after one of a handful of well-funded national groups swooped in to mobilize local support. In upset victories in Alaska and Delaware, for instance, the Sacramento-based Tea Party Express spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on advertising for Republican Senate candidates Joe Miller and Christine O'Donnell, respectively.

Other national groups, such as FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity, have also built organizations and spent millions of dollars on advertising, high-profile bus tours or other direct campaign tactics.

Some of the local group leaders may find such tactics distasteful. Fifty-seven percent said they want to operate as a network of independent entities. And many organizers said the lack of coordination and the independence of the groups are what drew them to the movement, even if it is a liability when it comes to turning their beliefs into action.

"It's both an advantage and a disadvantage," said Joe Lisante, 43, a family doctor and a founder of Miami County Liberty, a group near Dayton, Ohio.

"If you're an opponent of the tea party, we're not an easy target," he said. "Some of the groups want to take on prayer in school. Some of them want to take on voter education. Some want to be endorsing candidates. But there is no particular person, at least in the state of Ohio, who is the president of the tea party; it just doesn't exist. That's a disadvantage for us because we can't move quickly on things. We can't always agree."

From one member to thousands

Many of the groups that were interviewed claim hundreds of members and some boast thousands, but most said they have fewer than 50. A number of them appear to be limited to family or friends - the Northern Connecticut Patriots, for instance, counts seven members; the Southeast Wyoming Tea Party Patriots has one.

Jeff Lafferty, 48, a landscaper in Cheyenne, Wyo., said he formed the Southeast Wyoming Tea Party Patriots in April after growing increasingly concerned about such federal actions as the bank bailouts and the stimulus bill. But Lafferty attracted just one person to his only meeting, in part because a 9/12 Project tea party group in Cheyenne was already active, he said. Moreover, he said he has since grown disillusioned with the movement and the signs that some of its members are motivated by racism against Obama. Not only is his group no longer functioning, he said, but it "never was."

Donna Riner, 52, a medical practice manager, founded the five-member San Carlos Tea Party, in San Diego, which has met just once. "I just invited friends and family members," Riner said. "I wanted them to know what the tea party represents. It's about smaller government and less taxes. I wanted them to go on the national lists and join and give money to some of the big groups that support the people I believe in."

The tea party has been accused of racism by its political opponents after comments from some prominent members and signs at several major rallies this year that attacked Obama for either his race or the false belief that he is a Muslim. At rallies, for instances, organizers have kicked out questionable members and have sought to project a more tolerant image.

But the interviews found that Obama's race is, in fact, important in more than one in 10 tea party groups.

Andy Stevens, 68, a video producer and a founder of the Tea Party Patriots in Anacortes, Wash., said he described Obama's race and and religion as "somewhat important" to members of his group because they remain troubled by what they see as the president's un-American and un-Christian behaviors.

In Stevens's view, those include Obama's "socialist" policies and intentional failure to mention "the creator" when talking about inalienable rights.

"There are questions that don't get answered, like citizenship and his birth certificate," Stevens said. "I don't know why questions keep popping up all the time. If something is irrefutable, the questions wouldn't keep popping up."

The groups clearly do not identify with any particular national leaders, an indication that there is no tea party front-runner to take on Obama in 2012. When asked to name a national leader who best represents their views, more than a third of the groups said "no one."

Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin (R) received the most mentions, with 14 percent, followed by talk-show host Glenn Beck with 7 percent and South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint (R) with 6 percent.

One question remains: If most tea party groups don't engage in political campaigning, what exactly do they do?

Lisante, from Miami County, Ohio, said his meetings generally start with the Pledge of Allegiance, followed by a prayer, and then a speaker and a skit - the most recent was about the bank bailout. (Lisante said it was very funny.) The point, he said, is not to organize political action but to educate members and encourage them to become active on their own.

"Basically, we say: 'Listen, guys: You can no longer be the one who doesn't vote,' " Lisante said. " 'If you want to have an impact, you've got to show up.' "

Database editor Dan Keating contributed to this report.


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