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Sal Russo, Tea Party Express

Politico is running a piece today that acknowledges the influence of the Tea Party movement on the 2012 Presidential Election. Describing it as a “mating dance”, Politico points to the non-negotiable “hard-line positions” tea partyers continue to embrace re: cuts in government spending and taxes in return for TP support of potential hopefuls, underscoring the fact that there’s no love lost among tea partyers for “establishment Republicans” who are seen as a major part of the nation’s economic and national security problems.

“…many tea partiers also made clear they had no love lost for Republicans either because of their perceived complicity in runaway spending, and they responded coolly to GOP efforts to absorb them into the party.

The piece also warns that depending on how it’s played out, a squabble over the choices could spell doom for the tea party movement — or not. Tea Party Express’ Sal Russo and Amy Kremer are quoted, among others. TPX spent a reported  $7.7 million in the 2010 campaign to help its slate of candidates get elected, and plans a fifth national tour this summer, dubbed “The Presidential Bus Tour” which will focus on early primary states, ending in Tampa in a September debate it’s co-sponsoring with CNN.  The Express plans to make a presidential endorsement immediately afterward.

If the fractious movement comes close to reaching a consensus on a favored candidate it could help determine the identity and platform of the GOP nominee. But it’s also possible that disagreement over which candidate best represents the tea party’s small government ideals could splinter the movement further and show the tea party to be lacking the organizational heft or numbers to be a force in presidential politics.

“We’re doing them a favor by helping them reach an audience that is crucial to win, because I don’t think anybody can be elected without strong tea party support,” said Sal Russo, chief strategist for the Tea Party Express.

In recent weeks, Tea Party Express, a political action committee run by Russo’s Sacramento, Calif., consulting firm, has held private meetings to talk about its 2012 plans with a number of GOP presidential hopefuls including Haley Barbour, Gary Johnson and John Bolton, as well as top aides to two other likely candidates, Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty.

A similar meeting was scheduled for today between Newt Gingrich and Express officials, who have also been in regular contact with Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain.

The intent, said Russo, is to meet with all the prospective GOP presidential candidates to explain “why it’s going to be beneficial to them” to participate in what Russo called a “presidential bus tour” the group is organizing this summer, which will focus on early primary states and culminate in a September debate it’s co-sponsoring with CNN, after which the Express plans to make a presidential endorsement.

Tea Party Express’s debate, along with the face time it – and other groups in the movement – have had this year with the prospective candidates highlights the rapid ascent of the tea party movement within the GOP. But it also underscores the potentially tricky path to the party’s nomination.

Politico reports that top GOP operatives “consider tea party activists a key component of building a winning coalition in early presidential primary states such Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada – even as some tea party activists push Republicans to take stances that could be a liability in a general election.”

Romney, seen more as a RINO politician than a true conservative is not considered a tea party favorite, in large part because of the comprehensive health care law he championed while governing Massachusetts.  Tea partyers fear the Republican National Committee “kingmakers” will force their candidate on the ballot despite public distaste for Romney, in the same way conservatives were served up a heaping plate of the very unappetizing John McAmnesty.  Same goes for Tim Pawlenty, seen as another weak sister when it comes to sincerely embracing conservative principles.  And his “affection” for the tea party is seen as a naked political ploy.

In a video Pawlenty’s political action committee released last month, Pawlenty calls the tea party “a welcome, helpful, energetic, forward-leaning organization” and a “great addition to the conservative coalition and the coalition for change in this country.”

Despite last week’s CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll that “suggested that the appeal of the tea party in the broader electorate may be shrinking”  tea part activists dispute that.  If anything, the mood of conservatives and swelling numbers of independents would indicate otherwise.  And results of any poll conducted by the left wing media are suspect, as polls can be skewed to represent a particular agenda.

In an effort to counteract propaganda polling, one tea party activist has started an online tea party presidential poll.

But the field of candidates is anything but a field a dreams.

Another influential tea party organizer asserted that there simply aren’t many potential presidential candidates who appeal to the movement’s grassroots but also to the independents and swing voters who will be necessary to defeat Obama.

“My fear is that the grassroots will coalesce behind a candidate who appeals to them, but doesn’t have a chance of winning – a Michele Bachmann or (Florida Rep.) Allen West,” said the organizer, who didn’t want to be identified critiquing the field.

“So, to some extent, they’re not going to have a chance to really select the field, they’re just going to have to choose between what’s left over, just like they had to do in 2010.”

Amy Kremer of The Tea Party Express says the group plans to do more vetting of 2012 candidates before endorsing anyone.  “…now that we have a little bit of planning time, where we can lay out a plan.”

“We’re already looking at candidates, interviewing candidates, meeting with candidates and looking at everything about the candidate to determine who we get behind in these elections,” she said.

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