Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Tea Party moves from margins to mainstream

Tea Party moves from margins to mainstream in US politics
With banners, flags and T-shirts denouncing Barack Obama's fiscal stimulus and health reforms, Tea Party movement protestors are turning out against him everywhere he goes.
By Philip Sherwell in Tampa, Florida
30 Jan 2010

Last week he was in Florida to sell the "jobs, jobs, jobs" message of his State of the Union address and unveil plans for a new high-speed bullet train from Tampa to Orlando to help kick-start the economy.

In a packed college sports hall, the Mr Obama received a tumultuous welcome, reminiscent of the heady days of the 2008 campaign when he electrified the country with his White House run.

But for many Americans, the anti-establishment sentiment is now represented by those who gathered for the rival rally outside the University of Tampa. The immediate ire of protestors such as Tom Gaitens, a Florida commodities trader, was what they saw as another example of wasteful government spending.

Less than a year after the tea party movement was born out of conservative discontent at soaring spending and budget deficits, it is migrating from the margins to the mainstream of US politics.

As the country enters the 2010 election cycle, that spells bleak news for Mr Obama and his Democratic allies who currently run Congress.

Mr Gaitens had just returned from a training session for libertarian pro-market activists in Washington. "Our task now is to transition from a movement born to stop the onslaught of government into our lives to making an impact on the politics of this country by supporting small government conservatives in elections," he said.

The movement's adherents draw their name and inspiration from the Boston Tea Party of 1773, when angry American colonists dumped tea into Boston harbour in protest at the taxes levied by the British parliament.

And it was also in Massachusetts, some 236 years later, that the new Tea Party incarnation came of age when Scott Brown, a Republican long-shot, last month won a solidly Democratic seat previously held by Edward Kennedy.

Mr Brown was some 30 points down in the polls a few weeks before the election when Tea Party activists started pouring money and volunteers into the state from across the US. Their motivation was simple - a Brown victory would end the Democratic "super-majority" in Senate required to pass Mr Obama's controversial health reform plans.

The Republican party, which is also viewed with distaste by many Americans, took a calculated back seat, leaving it to the grassroots activists to campaign with missionary zeal against a poor Democratic candidate. The result is what conservatives are now calling "the Massachusetts miracle".

Florida, always a key electoral battleground, has become ground zero for the burgeoning Tea Party movement this year. And the movement does not just have allegedly free-spending Democrats in its sights. Centrist Republicans are also under fire, contributing to the deepening polarisation and bitter partisanship of US politics, critics argue.

Marco Rubio, a charismatic articulate young conservative running for the Republican nomination for an open Senate seat, is benefitting from the groundswell.

Last week, for the first time, Mr Rubio moved ahead in opinion polls of Florida governor Charlie Crist, his much better-financed and better-known rival in the party primary. For Mr Rubio, 38, a Miami politician and son of Cuban exiles, it is a dramatic turn-around after entering the race with support in the single digits.

He is riding the wave of public discontent with the political establishment across the US. And he is also a relentless critic of big government and Mr Obama's fiscal stimulus package, now budgeted at about $850 billion.

Mr Crist by contrast supported the fiscal plan and embraced the president when he came to Florida to promote the package last February.

That moment, known to all as "The Hug", earned the perma-tanned governor the universal scorn of conservatives.

Mr Rubio has been profiled as the future of conservatism on magazine front covers ranging from the right-wing National Review to the New York Times and will be a keynote speaker at this month's prestigious CPAC gathering of conservatives in Washington. Such is the buzz about him that he is already being talked about as a possible 2012 vice-presidential candidate.

Just across the bay from Tampa, in the twin city of St Petersburg, Mr Rubio was spreading the message last week, to the delight of enthusiastic supporters at a "meet and greet".

"We have a simple message that is resonating with people across this state," he said. "This president and his administration are trying to re-write the role of government in this county and we will fight that. We can fix everything that is wrong with this country without abandoning everything that is right."

To a chorus of groans and "no", he continued: "Our government wants to pick economic winners and losers. We're even being told that America should become more like the rest of the world." But, he assured his audience, "the American dream is alive and we're not going to walk away from our traditions".

While some Republicans are wary of the tea party movement and its wilder fringes - including so-called "birthers" who question whether Mr Obama was even born in the US, and hence eligible to run for president - he has embraced them.

"The Tea Party movement is a catch-all phrase to describe a movement of everyday Americans who are asserting themselves for the first time in their lives because they fear the direction this country is going," he told The Sunday Telegraph. "They are great people and our campaign is built on the same principles."

Mr Rubio's supporters ranged from Gary Jenkins, a softly-spoken software engineer who said he was alarmed by the gaping budget deficit for his children's generation, to Helena Rodriguez, a firebrand who fled Castro's Cuba in 1969.

Resplendent in a Stars and Stripes vest and cap of red, white and blue sequins, she declared: "Obama wants to take control of all our lives. That makes him a totalitarian to me. And he's not a socialist. He's a communist. I saw it happen in Cuba and now he's trying to do the same thing here. But he won't succeed. We'll impeach him."

The movement is certainly experiencing some growing pains. Most notably, major splits have emerged ahead of the first Tea Party convention in Nashville this week over the $550 ticket charge for participants, to pay a reported $100,000 speaking fee for Sarah Palin.

But activists like Mr Gaitens say the meeting in Washington last week - a strategy and campaigning session held by FreedomWorks, an organisation that recruits and trains grassroots conservatives - was more significant. "We are ready for the next stage in this battle," he said.

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