It’s a tricky time of courtship.
As the tea party turns 2, the still-gelling field of Republican presidential contenders is the first class of White House hopefuls to try to figure out how to tap the movement’s energy without alienating voters elsewhere on the political spectrum.
Look no further than this weekend’s events marking the tea party’s second anniversary to see how the candidates are employing different strategies. Some will be out front as the tea party stages tax day rallies across the country. Others, not so much.
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, an establishment Republican making a play for tea party support and clamoring to be heard over bigger names, is among those jumping in with both feet. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour is being more coy.
Pawlenty, for his part, planned to hold court at a gathering on Boston Common — in the city where colonists staged the 1773 Tea Party revolt against the British government — and in neighboring New Hampshire. And he’s headed for Iowa a day later for similar appearances that are likely to include “Don’t Tread on Me” banners and tirades against Washington spending.
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, perhaps the Republican most closely identified with the tea party, is slated to attend a weekend tea party rally at the Wisconsin Capitol, the site of recent protests over legislation that would strip union rights for most public workers.
Tea party darling Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachman, all but drafted into the race by tea partyers, plans to share the steps of the South Carolina Statehouse with another of the movement’s favorite daughters, Gov. Nikki Haley.
And little-known businessman Herman Cain, who is hoping tea party backing can make him more than a longshot, plans to hit rallies in New Hampshire, Iowa, Michigan and Texas.
Real estate magnet Donald Trump, who claims he’s serious about running, picked a tea party rally in Boca Raton, Fla., to make his stand.
Other contenders are proceeding with more caution.
Barbour plans weekend stops at county GOP conventions in Charleston, Columbia and Lexington, S.C. But he had no big tax day rallies on his schedule in a state where tea party activists have gained influence. As he weighs a presidential bid, Barbour has been more subtle than others in courting the movement. He talks about issues the tea party cares about, first and foremost the economy.
It’s the same approach that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has been taking. He talks about lower taxes and reduced government and was set to appear at a central Florida anti-tax event. He decries the Internal Revenue Service, a top target of tea partyers. And in his defense of the Massachusetts health care overhaul that he pushed through, he invokes the 10th Amendment that guarantees states’ rights.
In an opinion piece published Friday in the Orlando Sentinel, Romney praised the tea party-style activists: “The growth of government is not some inexorable force. In a democracy, we the people decide. Thanks to the tea party, there’s real hope that we can rein in our profligate federal government.”
But he spends the bulk of the column decrying President Barack Obama on policy, not invoking the Founding Fathers.
Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels has followed a similar model. He had no public events scheduled for anti-tax rallies but has proved eager to criticize Washington spending.
The tentativeness toward becoming a tea party candidate is understandable.
No candidate can afford to ignore these anti-establishment, anti-tax, conservative-libertarian rabble-rousers whose enthusiasm fired up the GOP base and helped Republicans win control of the House in November. But wrapping themselves in the tea party mantle carries risks for candidates.
They could get pushed too far to the right during the primaries if they embrace the tea party’s conservative platform. There’s also the potential stain of being linked to a group that Democratic critics have labeled extremist, if not racist.
Even so, the Republicans must compete in early primary states where tea party activists have made inroads in the GOP establishment and made clear that they intend to have a say in the presidential race.
“We want to find the best candidate and the best vehicle for us to reclaim our republic,” says Jerry DeLemus, a tea party leader from Rochester, N.H. “The Republican Party is a vehicle that we can use to effect positive change.”
Iowa’s tea party leaders, meanwhile, have mapped out a strategy to engage supporters and road-test presidential candidates with hopes of influencing the leadoff nominating caucuses. They are planning a bus tour through the state this summer, featuring at least four GOP presidential prospects, as well as a series of caucus training sessions.
New Hampshire’s tea party activists made gains within the state’s central GOP committee, and elected Jack Kimball as the state GOP chairman over the establishment’s pick in January. And the tea party footprint in South Carolina also has expanded, with activists becoming more influential inside GOP county organizations.
The tea party’s birth can be traced to spring 2009, when libertarians and conservatives rose up in small towns and big cities alike to oppose Obama’s policies, including the $787 billion economic stimulus measure, Wall Street bailouts and Obama’s health care plan.
Some activists point to a CNBC anchor’s televised tirade about taxes as the launching point. Others dispute that.
Whatever its origin, there’s no doubt about the tea party’s power.
“We’ve changed the political landscape in Washington and in statehouses across the country,” says Amy Kremer, chairwoman of the Tea Party Express. “We have to keep going and keep beating the drum.”