For a loosely organized coalition, the tea party has displayed remarkable unity since it emerged in early 2010. But that discipline is being tested in the run-up to the 2012 GOP presidential primary as three top Republicans aggressively court the conservative movement.
Those Republicans – former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Rep. Michele Bachmann and billionaire developer Donald Trump – are motivated by distinct agendas that may or may not include a presidential campaign. But all three would-be candidates are forcing tea party activists to make some important decisions as they try to grow into a more enduring force in American politics.
“In 2010, the tea party was trying to prove itself. In 2012, it may be suffering from an excess of success,” said Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia. “You have multiple candidates taking all the positions your activists agree with. Who do you pick? Splintering is inevitable.”
Early polls suggest that Trump is dominating the GOP field – among Tea Party activists and more mainstream Republican voters. A new PPP poll showed Trump leading his nearest GOP competitor by 9 points. (That’s likely a result of Trump’s towering name recognition; according to a Pew Research Center survey released Wednesday, 39 percent of Republicans named him as the potential candidate they’ve heard the most about lately. That was more than all other candidates – combined).
Characteristically, Trump has appealed brazenly to tea party activists by reviving the debate over President Obama’s citizenship and sending investigators to Hawaii to sleuth out the president’s birth certificate.
But critics - and there are many of them - say Trump is capitalizing on what he believes is another buyer’s market to help promote his omnipresent brand and further boost the net worth about which he frequently boasts. The most vocal critics of Trump come from the GOP establishment. Former Bush adviser Karl Rove recently called Trump a “joke candidate”, for example, while columnist Charles Krauthammer said Trump is the “Al Sharpton of the Republican Party.”
In the face of such critiques, Trump may be changing his tune. “I have spoken my piece on this [birther] issue,” Trump wrote in a USA Today op-ed published Thursday, reminding readers that “many people have the same doubts as I have.”
Still, one high-profile Republican said Trump is busy doing the hard work necessary to launch a national campaign. “Anybody that thinks he’s doing this for name recognition – that’s just not true. He's very serious about it and he's convinced he can win,” South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) said this week.
While Palin is still actively courting the tea party, GOP strategists see little evidence that she’s planning to mount a presidential campaign in 2012. Her thinking may be influenced by a battery of recent polls that suggest her once sky-high popularity is plummeting on many key fronts – among Republicans and independents, for example, as well as Alaskans.
Somewhat surprisingly, Bachmann may be the trio’s most serious candidate – at least, her recent fundraising suggests she is. The three-term congresswoman raised $2.2 million in the first quarter of 2011, according to her newly released Federal Election Commission filings. Of that total, $1.7 million came from her congressional committee, and $500,000 from her political action committee. She even outpaced former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who's noted for his fundraising strengths and is viewed by many as the party’s 2012 frontrunner. Romney raised $1.9 million in the first quarter of this year.
“I'm in for 2012, in that I want to be a part of the conversation,” Bachmann said last month in Iowa. “I haven’t made a decision yet to announce, obviously, if I'm a candidate or not, but I'm in for the conversation.”
ndeed, political insiders say Bachmann has distinguished herself from Palin and other GOP candidates by “walking the walk” with tea party activists. “She’s got so much money, and she’s a true believer. And she’s beaten the odds, repeatedly,” Sabato said. “She’s egged on by the media in a different way than Palin. Palin gets irritated, while Bachmann gets even. And she gets even by running.”
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