Marco Rubio, a rising star in conservative Republican circles, said he sees the exploding "tea party" movement as a political energy source to be tapped, not a political party to be led.
Mr. Rubio's underdog race for the Senate against Gov. Charlie Crist in Florida's Republican primary has become a rallying point for conservatives nationwide.
He has been called the potential first "tea party senator," but he's quick to note that the anti-big-government movement is a symbol of mounting voter frustration with the records of both major parties in Washington.
"The tea party is about the anger over Washington's excesses that began under a Republican administration and Congress. Republicans have been guilty of expanding government," Mr. Rubio told The Washington Times in an interview. "But in the last 12 months, government has expanded at an even more alarming pace.
"And that expansion is what propels the massive pushback, which has become known as the tea party movement," said Mr. Rubio, who will give the keynote address Thursday at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), a three-day event at which the tea party phenomenon will be a primary topic.
The issue of relations among the Republican Party, movement conservatives and the tea party groups remains one of the most sensitive facing all sides as the 37th annual CPAC gathering kicks off. Some in the GOP are wary of the anger and fringe elements attached to the tea party movement, while many tea party activists are leery of losing control of their movement and becoming a wholly owned subsidiary of the Republican Party.
In a wide-ranging interview, Mr. Rubio, a fierce opponent of higher taxes and spending while serving in the Florida Legislature, said he disapproved of the hypocrisy of Republicans who publicly slam the Obama administration's $862 billion economic stimulus plan while privately seeking more taxpayer dollars for their states and districts.
He acknowledged that he would "reluctantly accept" stimulus money for Florida, as have Mr. Crist and many conservative Republican governors, so long as the money was being doled out anyway.
"I won't accept earmark spending after I'm elected to the Senate and would reluctantly accept stimulus [money for Florida] in the same way" that governors such as Haley Barbour in Mississippi, Rick Perry in Texas and Bobby Jindal in Louisiana have done, Mr. Rubio said. He has called the issue of whether states should reject stimulus money as a matter of principle "a red herring."
Ironically, it was Mr. Crist's public embrace of Mr. Obama in February 2009 and eager support for the stimulus package that helped fuel the long-shot candidacy of Mr. Rubio, a former speaker of the Florida House. Despite the clear backing of the Republican Party in Washington for the better-known, better-funded Mr. Crist, the 38-year-old Mr. Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants who fled Fidel Castro's regime, has surged into the lead in primary polls.
But it's the potential embrace of the GOP and tea party factions that political strategists from both parties will be closely monitoring heading into Novembers midterm elections.
Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele has actively wooed the movement, dubbing himself a "tea partier" and meeting with about 50 tea party activists earlier this week in a bid to plot a joint course for the upcoming campaign season.
After the meeting, Mr. Steele said the two sides "share a common purpose in stopping President Obama's agenda and standing up for principles such as smaller government, lower taxes, free enterprise and the Constitution," but no concrete plan of action was announced.
A poll released Wednesday showed the stakes involved for Republicans at the ballot box.
According to a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. survey, 11 percent of Americans say they have actively supported tea party efforts, including through financial donations and attending rallies. The survey also found that tea party supporters would overwhelmingly back Republican candidates over Democrats - assuming no tea party candidates were on the ballot.
"Conservatives should pick and choose tea party ideas that keep government closest to the people and that encourage the liberation of the individual," said former Gov. Frank A. Keating, Oklahoma Republican. He cited as examples "public schools that work and tax policies that reward work and discourage idleness."
Reagan administration official Don Devine said the "tea party types are the salvation of the limited-government movement and need to be accommodated in every honorable manner."
"We are allies," insisted Heritage Foundation President Edwin J. Feulner. "In fact, 'They is us, and we is them,' to paraphrase [the comic-strip character] Pogo."
Some leaders in the conservative movement and some in the tea party think the trick will be to achieve compatibility without either side feeling co-opted.
"Most tea party activists are movement conservatives," insisted former Florida GOP Chairman Al Cardenas, "only they may not have realized that yet."
Many movement conservatives agree with the complaint of tea party activists that once in power, Republicans are no better than Democrats in resisting government spending.
"A potential source of major conflicts between D.C. conservatives and tea partiers is that in recent years most D.C. conservatives supported big-government Republican politicians such as John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, Tom DeLay, Karl Rove and George Bush," said conservative direct-mail mogul Richard A. Viguerie. "These are the types of politicians who have brought the tea party into existence."
"This is why we have a problem attracting tea party types," said Republican presidential campaign consultant Bob Heckman. "When we say we are for less spending, we need to mean it across the board. And we should start by insisting that the candidates we support renounce earmarks."
Mr. Rubio has attended tea party events, and a widely noted Time cover story recently asked: "The First Senator from the Tea Party?" But Mr. Rubio in the interview stopped short of the kind of close embrace Mr. Steele has tried to promote.
" 'Tea party' is basically a catchall phrase for what's going on in America," Mr. Rubio said. "The tea party is not some formal organization, although some have tried to organize it."
The agenda for this year's CPAC - one of the most important dates on the calendar of American conservatives - includes several sessions devoted to the tea party phenomenon, including a number of speakers active in various state tea party organizations.
Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, a Texas Republican whose FreedomWorks think tank was a prime mover behind some of the tea party's biggest public events, will also address the CPAC gathering.
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