updated 2/11/2011 1:15:37 PM ET 2011-02-11T18:15:37

GOP to Tea Party: Welcome to OUR party.

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Not so long ago, the Republican Party and its conservative base weren't sure what to make of — or how to treat — the emerging rabble-rousing ranks of the latest political phenomenon.

No more.

Everyone from House Speaker John Boehner to the decades-old Conservative Political Action Conference is embracing, if not celebrating, the libertarian-leaning activists who upended the Republican establishment and helped the GOP post huge congressional gains last fall.

"I'm a big believer in the Tea Party," Boehner said. His comment came just days before Tea Party-backed House Republicans caused headaches for the speaker on Capitol Hill by dealing him a string of unexpected legislative defeats and forcing his lieutenants to propose deeper budget cuts.

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The Tea Party also is figuring prominently this week at the annual three-day gathering in Washington that for 38 years has attracted thousands of conservatives and a crop of GOP presidential hopefuls trying to win them over.

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Tea Party darling Michele Bachmann, a Minnesota congresswoman, scored the opening speaking slot, and several other favorites — including Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul — held court, too. Panels were dedicated to issues dear to the Tea Party — like one on cutting spending — and featured nationally recognized Tea Party leaders, such as Amy Kremer of the Tea Party Express. The audience included many people wearing Tea Party buttons and shirts.

"These are our new allies," said David Keene, the outgoing chairman of conference sponsor American Conservative Union. "The story of the last two years has been the story of an awakening — a political and ideological awakening — of the American people. A lot of these folks who pooh-poohed this awakening lost their jobs in November."

GOP's slow ride to 2012

Both a blessing and a curse for Republicans
Elected Republican leaders and GOP rank and file have danced around the Tea Party for nearly two years, unsure how to handle the fledgling political group that rose up in opposition to President Barack Obama's policies on spending, health care and the growth of government.

Then, the Tea Party proved its might in November by helping elect dozens of Republicans, giving the GOP little choice but to try to bring the new blood into its old fold.

Yet, tea party leaders insist the movement remains independent.

"We're not an arm of the Republican Party," Kremer said. "In fact, there are a lot of Republicans that don't like us. Our objective is to send conservatives to Washington — not Republicans."

In that way and others, the anti-establishment tea party has been — and continues to be — both blessing and curse for Republicans.

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It provided the GOP — leaderless and in the midst of an identity crisis — with a much-needed boost of enthusiasm in 2010, and it helped the party win the House majority. But it also probably cost Republicans control of the Senate after swinging behind far-right GOP nominees in Nevada, Colorado and Delaware, states Democrats ended up winning.

Looking to 2012, Tea Party groups also have signaled they'll try to knock off Republican Senate incumbents in at least three states. While Utah is a reliably conservative state, Indiana and Maine could give Democrats an opening for victory if GOP incumbents fall in primaries to Tea Party-embracing candidates.

Story: The 2012 GOP presidential field

"The Tea Party has had enormous influence," Paul, who beat a party-chosen candidate in last year's primary, told conservatives. But, he added, the Tea Party shouldn't yield, saying: "Don't let up. It's not enough to have Republicans in charge. We are not inherently exceptional as Republicans."

Playing to the coalition's independent streak, he asked: "Are we going to let Washington co-opt the tea party?" "No!" the crowd shouted — even as the GOP was busy co-opting the Tea Party.

GOP stalwarts note Tea Party's power
Pillars of the Republican establishment have taken note of the coalition's power.

"The energy and drive of the Tea Party movement has brought needed recalibration to our party and our cause," former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told conservatives. And Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, a conservative who has been targeted by Tea Party backers for defeat next year and is scrambling to save his job, said earlier this week: "The tea party movement is having an imprint on America that is very good."

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell's speech to conservatives was notable because it didn't single out the Tea Party but spoke to conservatives as a whole.

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"We'll have some disagreements along the way. That's inevitable," said McConnell, R-Ky., whose preferred Senate candidate lost to Paul. "But one thing that unites all of us is the belief that the goals of the movement are greater than the goals of any individual member of it and that if we stick together and unite around common goals, grounded in shared principles, we will continue to change the conversation in Washington for the better."

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Still, not everyone is warmly embracing the movement.

Sen. Lugar to Tea Party: 'Get real'
Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar told Tea Party groups threatening to try to boot him from office next year to "get real."

Beyond Congress, the Tea Party is all but certain to be active in the presidential race. Less clear is how and, perhaps more importantly, to what end.

Its enthusiasm — and its legions of foot soldiers — will be critical as Republicans try to accomplish the difficult task of beating an incumbent president who is personally popular.

But which Republican will Tea Party backers rally behind?

Tea Party heroine Sarah Palin may not run. Neither may favorites Bachmann and South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint.

Their backers could very well wreak havoc on the wide open GOP field, splitting their support among several candidates. With so many unknowns, all would-be nominees are making careful pitches to court Tea Party activists — or at least not alienate them. Still, doing so carries a risk: the eventual Republican nominee could be pushed far to the right.

And that could play into Obama's hands by turning off independent voters who will be critical to the GOP's chances of winning the White House — just as the president is making a serious play for their support by seemingly shifting his policies to the center.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Explainer: The 2012 GOP presidential field

  • A look at the Republican candidates hoping to challenge Barack Obama in the general election.

  • Rick Perry, announced Aug. 13

    Image: Perry
    Sean Gardner  /  REUTERS
    Texas Gov. Rick Perry

    Mere hours before a major GOP debate in Iowa (and a couple of days before the high-interest Ames straw poll), the Perry camp announced that the Texas governor was all-in for 2012.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Texas governor.

    While some on ground in the early-caucus state criticized the distraction, strategists applauded the move and said Perry was giving Romney a run for his money.

    Slideshow: A look at Gov. Rick Perry's political career

    He may face fierce opposition from secular groups and progressives who argue that his religious rhetoric violates the separation of church and state and that his belief that some groups, such as the Boy Scouts of America, should be allowed to discriminate against gays is bigoted.

  • Jon Huntsman, announced June 21

    Image: Jon Hunt
    Mandel Ngan  /  AFP - Getty Images file
    Outgoing U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman

    Huntsman, a former governor of Utah, made his bid official on June 21 at at Liberty State Park in New Jersey.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former governor of Utah.

    He vowed to provide "leadership that knows we need more than hope" and "leadership that doesn’t promise Washington has all the solutions to our problems."

    The early days of his campaign were clouded with reports of internal discord among senior staffers.

    Slideshow: Jon Huntsman Jr.

    Huntsman, who is Mormon, worked as a missionary in Taiwan and is fluent in Mandarin. But his moderate credentials — backing civil unions for gays and the cap-and-trade energy legislation — could hurt him in a GOP primary. So could serving under Obama.

  • Michele Bachmann, announced on June 13

    Image: Michele Bachmann
    Larry Downing  /  REUTERS
    Rep. Michele Bachmann

    Born and raised in Iowa, this Tea Party favorite and Minnesota congresswoman announced during a June 13 GOP debate that she's officially in the running for the Republican nomination.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Minn. congresswoman.

    Bachmann tells The Associated Press she decided to jump into the 2012 race at this time because she believed it was "the right thing to do."

    She's been criticized for making some high-profile gaffes — among them, claiming taxpayers would be stuck with a $200 million per day tab for President Barack Obama's trip to India and identifying New Hampshire as the site of the Revolutionary War's opening shots.

    Slideshow: The political life of Michele Bachmann

    But Bachmann's proved a viable fundraiser, collecting more than $2 million in political contributions in the first 90 days of 2011 — slightly exceeding the $1.8 million Mitt Romney brought in via his PAC in the first quarter.

  • Rick Santorum, announced on June 6

    Image: Rick Santorum
    Charlie Neibergall  /  AP file
    Former Penn. Sen. Rick Santorum

    A staunch cultural conservative vehemently against abortion and gay marriage, the former Pennsylvania senator hopes to energize Republicans with a keen focus on social issues.

    He announced the launch of a presidential exploratory committee on FOX News, where he makes regular appearances. He make his run official on June 6 in Somerset, Pa., asking supporters to "Join the fight!"

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former Pennsylvania senator.

    No stranger to controversy, Santorum was condemned by a wide range of groups in 2003 for equating homosexuality with incest, pedophilia and bestiality. More recently, Santorum faced criticism when he called Obama’s support for abortion rights “almost remarkable for a black man.”

    Slideshow: Rick Santorum's political life

    Since his defeat by Democrat Robert Casey in his 2006 re-election contest — by a whopping 18 percentage points — Santorum has worked as an attorney and as a think-tank contributor.

    A February straw poll at CPAC had him in twelfth place amongst Republicans with 2 percent of the vote.

  • Mitt Romney, announced on June 2

    Image: Mitt Romney
    Paul Sancya  /  AP file
    Former Massachusetts Gov. and presidential candidate Mitt Romney

    The former Massachusetts governor and 2008 presidential candidate has spent the last three years laying the foundations for another run at the White House — building a vigorous political action committee, making regular media appearances, and penning a policy-heavy book.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former Mass. governor.

    In April, he announced, via YouTube and Twitter, that he'd formed an exploratory commitee. Romney made his run official in Stratham, N.H., on June 2.

    The former CEO of consulting firm Bain & Company and the president of the organizing committee for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Romney frequently highlights his business background as one of his main qualifications to serve as president.

    Slideshow: Mitt Romney's life in politics

    To capture the nomination, Romney will have to defend the health care overhaul he enacted during his governorship — legislation that bears similarities to the Obama-backed bill despised by many conservatives. He'll also have to overcome the perception of being a flip-flopper (like supporting abortion rights in his 1994 and 2002 bids for office, but opposing them in his '08 run).

    In the first quarter of 2011, he netted some $1.8 million through his PAC "Free and Strong America."

  • Herman Cain, announced on May 21

    Image: Herman Cain
    Brendan Smialowski  /  Getty Images file
    Talk show host Herman Cain

    Cain, an Atlanta radio host and former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, has support from some Tea Party factions.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Atlanta radio host.

    An African-American who describes himself as a “citizen’s candidate,” he was the first Republican to form a formal presidential exploratory committee. He officially entered the race in May, telling supporters, "When we wake up and they declare the presidential results, and Herman Cain is in the White House, we'll all be able to say, free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, this nation is free at last, again!"

    Prior to the release of President Obama's long-form birth certificate, Cain rehashed the birther theory, telling a Florida blogger, “I respect people that believe he should prove his citizenship ... He should prove he was born in the United States of America.”

  • Ron Paul, announced on May 13

    Image: Ron Paul
    Cliff Owen  /  AP file
    Rep. Ron Paul

    In 2008, Texas congressman Ron Paul’s libertarian rallying cry — and his opposition to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — did not fall on deaf ears. An idiosyncratic foe of the Federal Reserve and a passionate advocate for limited government, Paul mounted a presidential run that was characterized by bursts of jaw-dropping online fundraising.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Texas congressman.

    Slideshow: Ron Paul

    He officially launched his 2012 campaign in New Hampshire, saying, ""The revolution is spreading, and the momentum is building ... Our time has come."

    In the first quarter of 2011, raked in some $3 million through his various political organizations.

  • Newt Gingrich, announced on May 11

    Image: Newt Gingrich
    John M. Heller  /  Getty Images file
    Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich

    The former speaker of the House who led the 1994 “Republican Revolution,” Gingrich remains a robust presence on the GOP stage as a prolific writer and political thinker. In recent years, Barack Obama has provided a new target for the blistering critiques Gingrich famously leveled at President Bill Clinton.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former speaker of the House.

    In early May, he made his 2012 run official. "I have been humbled by all the encouragement you have given me to run," Gingrich wrote on Facebook and Twitter.

    But a month later, the campaign was practically in ruins — with his campaign manager, spokesman, senior strategists all resigning en masse. Most cited issues with the "direction" of the campaign. But Gingrich vowed to press on.

    Slideshow: Newt Gingrich

    Also at issue: Gingrich’s personal life could make winning the support of social conservatives thorny for the twice-divorced former lawmaker. In a damning interview earlier this year, Esquire quoted one of Gingrich’s former wives describing him as a hypocrite who preached the sanctity of marriage while in the midst of conducting an illicit affair.

    Additional obstacles include his recent criticism of Rep. Paul Ryan’s fiscal plan as “right-wing social engineering" and reports of a $500,000 line of credit to Tiffany’s, the luxury jewelry company.

  • Gary Johnson, announced on April 21

    Image:Gary Johnson
    Jim Cole  /  AP
    Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson

    The former New Mexico governor took a big leap in late April, not by announcing an exploratory committee, but by actually announcing his official candidacy. “I’m running for president of the United States,” he told a couple of supporters and cameramen gathered for his announcement outside the New Hampshire State Capitol.

    He's a steadfast libertarian who supports the legalization of marijuana. He vetoed more than 700 pieces of legislation during his two terms as governor.


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