Image: Dozens of Tea Party supporters rally near the U.S. Capitol against raising the debt limit in Washington
Jonathan Ernst  /  REUTERS
Dozens of Tea Party supporters rally near the U.S. Capitol against raising the debt limit, July 27, 2011.
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updated 8/5/2011 4:17:04 PM ET 2011-08-05T20:17:04

The Tea Party is here to stay. The 2-year-old phenomenon's muscular role in the debt-ceiling crisis made that clear, despite earlier predictions it would fade away when the national furor over health care cooled down.

Now the GOP establishment wonders if the grass-roots movement will power Republicans to new victories in 2012, or dash them on the rocks of unbending ideology.

One thing is obvious: The Tea Party already is reshaping the Republican Party. Once-moderate lawmakers are shifting sharply right, fearing primary challenges more than Democratic opponents. And most GOP presidential contenders have positioned themselves to the right of party leaders, and even some House tea partyers, on the debt-ceiling issue.

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The movement's influence on the GOP remains double-edged. Tea Partyers' adamant opposition to tax hikes helped Republican Party regulars force President Barack Obama to surrender his push for new taxes on the rich. But House tea partyers also embarrassed Speaker John Boehner by forcing him to hastily revise his debt-ceiling bill.

To secure their votes, Boehner added a balanced-budget provision that had no hope of becoming law, and which drew ridicule from some quarters. A weakened requirement that the House and Senate only vote on — not necessarily pass — a balanced budget amendment before the end of the year survived in the final product.

Video: Sizing up the 2012 GOP presidential field (on this page)

With the Tea Party about to play its first role in a presidential election, mainstream Republicans hope to harness its energy in campaigns nationwide, as they did in 2010. The trick is to do it while avoiding the damage of that year, when Tea Partyers cost the GOP likely Senate pickups by nominating out-of-the-mainstream conservatives in Delaware, Nevada and Colorado.

The lesson, party insiders say, is not for the tea party to dampen its fire. Rather, they say, Republican candidates must understand its power. Shame on those who get blindsided this time.

The Tea Party is "driving the conversation," said Republican consultant Danny Diaz. "The president, Congress, Democrats, Republicans are all talking about austerity, restraint, the spending crisis. That's not going to change."

Asked if another Tea Party insurgent might cost Republicans a likely Senate win, as Christine O'Donnell did last year in Delaware, Diaz put the onus on the party's candidates. "If you are seeking office in this environment," he said, "it would behoove you to discuss the out-of-control spending that's taking place in Washington."

Video: More fallout from the debt bill (on this page)

Another Republican consultant, Brian Nick, agreed. "A candidate has got to figure out a way to get through a primary," he said, and it's unfair to make scapegoats of Tea Partyers.

Veteran elected Republicans with mainstream conservative histories have gotten the message. Some are virtually reinventing themselves as Tea Partyers.

In Utah, already-conservative Sen. Orrin Hatch has veered so hard to the right that it's a constant topic of conversation, and sometimes amusement, in state political circles. Still, many wonder if he can survive if two-term Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Tea Party favorite, decides to challenge him.

In New Mexico, former five-term Rep. Heather Wilson built a reputation as a GOP centrist, willing to buck her party's leaders and support raising the minimum wage and expanding children's health insurance. In 2008, she lost a Senate primary to a more conservative Republican.

Now, running for Senate again, Wilson has pledged to oppose raising the nation's debt ceiling unless Congress passes a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. That requires a two-thirds majority in both chambers, which lawmakers in both parties say is politically impossible.

Virginia Republican George Allen, who is trying to regain the Senate seat he lost in 2006, has taken a similar stand, even though he voted four times to raise the debt ceiling while in office.

Many congressional Republicans support the balanced-budget amendment. In the end, however, a solid majority of them, including most members of the House Tea Party caucus, voted for the bipartisan debt-limit deal that dropped a demand that the amendment first win passage and be sent to the states for ratification.

Video: Lawmakers must face constituents (on this page)

The big unknown is the Tea Party movement's influence on the presidential race. Some political professionals think tea partyers already are pushing GOP candidates so far right that the eventual nominee might struggle to pick up independent voters in the general election against Obama. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney appeared unenthusiastic when announcing his opposition to the debt-ceiling compromise that Congress enacted with solid GOP support in both chambers.

Jon Huntsman, the only presidential hopeful to support the measure, said Romney did not show leadership.

The Tea Party's influence on the GOP "will come with heavy baggage in independent-leaning states like Maine or even Indiana," said Nate Daschle, a Democratic activist whose father was Senate majority leader. That could apply to Senate races in those states, where incumbent Republicans face tea party challengers for the nomination, and to the presidential race, he said. Obama won Indiana narrowly, and Maine handily, in 2008.

Independent voters skip most primaries but play big roles in general elections. They want "progress over rigid ideology," Daschle said.

If Tea Party voters dominate GOP primaries, they can nominate unorthodox candidates such as Delaware's O'Donnell.

"The Tea Party didn't happen by accident and it wasn't contrived," Daschle said. "It's one of the purest and most organic movements in politics today, and while it may endanger its parent party, this is exactly the way the system was designed."

A recent Pew Research/Washington Post poll suggests that Republicans did themselves few favors in the debt-ceiling struggle. About four in 10 Americans said they had a less favorable view of congressional Republicans because of the negotiations, while three in 10 said their opinion of Democrats in Congress faded. People who now have a dimmer view of tea party-affiliated lawmakers, because of the debt issue, outnumber those with a more positive view.

Video: Inside the mind of the Tea Party (on this page)

A CBS News/New York Times poll this week shows that only 20 percent of Americans and 41 percent of Republicans have a favorable view of the tea party, down from 26 percent and 59 percent, respectively, in April. Just 18 percent of Americans now view themselves as Tea Party supporters, compared with 31 percent who did immediately after the November 2010 elections.

Texas Tech University political scientist Tim Nokken warns against overstating the tea party's influence. "I'm not sure the GOP is going to march lock-step with the Tea Party," he said in an email.

The movement may have its biggest impact on Republican House members eager to avoid a primary threat from the right, he said. These lawmakers may act "not so much out of agreement with the Tea Party agenda, but as a means to reduce the likelihood of a primary challenge," Nokken said.

Either way, the tea party is leaving a big mark on the GOP. And the limits of its influence are not yet clear.

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

Video: Sizing up the 2012 GOP presidential field

  1. Closed captioning of: Sizing up the 2012 GOP presidential field

    >>> of all the writers in the country, few political observers wield a more decisive pen than frank rich who now writes for "new york "with the magazine so when he sizes up the 2012 presidential race and the debt ceiling race this way it's sure to make an impact. quote, i woke up with two thoughts, that mitch mcconnell is now the most important man in washington and that the next u.s. president will be somebody who was not in washington while this nightmare unfolded. you can read the entire story in the current issue featuring gop presidential candidates mitt romney and jon huntsman on the cover. thanks for coming in.

    >> thanks for having me.

    >> who are you referring to as the next president?

    >> i was being a little flip.

    >> and you were being a bit harsh towards mr. obama.

    >> i was being a bit harsh, but i do feel i was not alone feeling there was not much leadership from him, something has given him the idea that if you're the adult in the room and you're willing to compromise and you're an agreeable guy that will appeal to independents and get him re-elected. i'm not so sure.

    >> tea party members as a parent, when you have a recalcitrant child and i have three children, all who have been badly behaved throughout the childhood, that you're the parent and you ultimately decide and you lead and you dominate, and yet in this situation we've had these children in effect symbolically just pushing the president to one side.

    >> right, and pushing their own party to one side. it's kind of a ridiculous situation, but it happened. it's now part of our history, and -- and we -- one hopes that everyone involved will wake up. my point about the field in 2012 is that romney, notoriously said nothing during this entire debate until -- until he could, you know, shoot some of the hostages.

    >> apparently under mittness protection.

    >> i like that. politico came up with that.

    >> yes, and, you know, also rick perry , although probably sympathetic to the tea party , was also not heard from, and they are at a huge advantage i think in that weak field of the republican party .

    >> let's focus on another candidate, possible candidate. she hasn't announced yet, but sarah palin who reportedly responded -- she responded to vice president biden who reportedly mentioned tea party lawmakers describing them as terrorists. let's hear what she had to say.

    >> heck, sean, if we were real domestic terrorists, shoot, president obama would want to pal around with us, wouldn't he? he didn't have a problem palling around with bill ayers back in the day when he kicked off his political career.

    >> remarkable that she remembered bill ayers .

    >> i liked if you put a -- if you -- put a reloaded gun in front of her to use her language, would she be able to remember anything what bill ayers actually did or what his relationship with obama was, but this is -- who knows what she's up to. i do think if she actually did jump into this race, which most people seem to think is unlikely, it would be hilarious because -- they would all be heading for the hills. i think it's probably their worst nightmare

    >> you don't think she's going to run, do you?

    >> i don't know. the conventional wisdom is that she won't and she'd rather get publicity, rather be a tv star, but her movie flopped at the box office .

    >> yes.

    >> well, we've noticed because her books, her second book didn't do so well as her first.

    >> right.

    >> the documentary has done poorly, not made much money. therefore, do you think if she doesn't step into the race she doesn't really have much purpose. she doesn't really have much to do.

    >> well, i think that's a great point, so is she going to be satisfied being on the fox payroll and turning up for things like this, or might she get in even with little expectation of getting the nomination just for publicity and merchandising purposes? i wouldn't put it past her but it would create havoc if it happened.

    >> i've got a copy of the magazine, and your lengthy article which talley in this edition concerns rupert murdoch . you, of course, worked for rupert murdoch .

    >> a long time ago, briefly.

    >> you say in the article america is still in denial as far as murdoch is concerned. what do you mean, because britain is not in denial?

    >> well, i think it's going to spread here. what happened in england isn't going to stay in england. we sort of over 35 years have become inured to the murdoch way of doing president putting people like sarah palin who could be president of the united states and some of her rivals on the payroll. places like msnbc may have a certain kind of politics, they may have people who cycled into washington on the air but to have four presidential candidates on the pay rolf fox and to be so intimately involved with figures like bernie carrick and rudy giuliani through the years. we don't know where all the bodries buried.

    >> do you think at some point this phone hacking scandal which is literally, you know, wreaked havoc in britain, may actually come home to roost here in the u.s.?

    >> i think it can in part because maybe not in the literal way of that phone hacking, we don't know. the fbi is investigating. what we do know is some of the people involved with it and some of the people who have told parliament everything was hunky-dory worked for news organization, for news corp. in america including the head of the " wall street journal " who told parliament only one or two people were involved in the hacking who just resigned.

    >> indeed. frank rich , as ever,

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