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National Politics

Tea party still deciding among GOP candidates

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Published:   |   Updated: March 19, 2013 at 12:53 PM
TAMPA -

With days remaining before Tuesday's Republican presidential primary election in Florida, local tea party organizer Karen Jaroch still isn't sure which candidate will get her vote.

"I would say the vast majority of the tea party is not rallying around one particular candidate," said Jaroch, organizer and director of Tampa 912 Project, a group with more than 2,000 local members whose name is derived from nine principles and 12 values they share. "I like different things about each of them."

She's far from alone in her indecision. Florida well might prove to be the pivotal state in deciding the Republican challenger to President Barack Obama — and the tea party might be the deciding factor in Florida — but no candidate has united the far-flung movement yet.

Sharon Calvert, organizer of the Tampa Tea Party, which lists more than 1,000 members on its website, canceled a formal survey of members' preferences this week because it is apparent that support is divided.

"The next few days are going to be interesting," Calvert said. "I would say people are out there still looking and watching the candidates."

An informal survey made by a state tea party official about 40 leaders of groups throughout Florida showed a one-vote difference between Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, a smaller cadre backing Ron Paul, and little support for Mitt Romney.

Romney on Friday opened up a 38 percent-to-29 percent lead on Gingrich in the latest Quinnipiac poll taken before Thursday night's debate, with Paul at 14 percent and Santorum at 12 percent. But 32 percent of those surveyed said they could change their minds by Tuesday.

The lack of a clear Republican favorite among tea party advocates has created a wide-open competition among the four contenders — with the possible exception of Romney, whose Florida campaign the political website Politico.com summed up as "tea party vs. cocktail party."

Jaroch characterized Romney as a leader with "proven executive experience and business sense in leadership."

Paul has a good grasp of the economy, which makes him stand out as a candidate, while Newt Gingrich is an excellent orator with the power to communicate, she said.

Santorum is a social conservative who is not as high on her list as the others but is attractive to different parts of the tea party, she said.

Those interviewed among more than 100 people at an Americans for Prosperity watch party Tuesday night during President Obama's State of the Union address were in agreement that they want Obama out of office but provided no solid indication of which candidate they want to run against him.

Tea party supporter Linda Skempris of St. Petersburg wore a Ron Paul button at the watch party but acknowledged Paul isn't a charismatic speaker.

"If he had Newt Gingrich's tongue, he'd be No. 1," Skempris said.

The lack of consensus also illustrates that despite agreement on a handful of fundamental issues such as government spending, the tea party might be categorized best as movement with strong conservative values that is more diverse than might be expected.

Florida has more than 200 groups calling themselves "tea party," "912" and "Liberty" advocates, with many people participating in groups on both the local and state levels.

Research by Harvard University professor Theda Skocpol and Harvard doctoral candidate Vanessa Williamson in their recently published book "The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism" identified three fundamental sources for tea party dynamics.

Grass-roots activists, conservative media personalities such as Rush Limbaugh and Fox News commentators and billionaire-backed free-market advocacy groups such as the Americans for Prosperity jostle for attention and power, the authors contend.

But local tea party advocates say the movement does not have a top-down dynamic with money and influence from wealthy conservatives buying into the energy and devotion of grass-roots advocates.

"The tea party grew out of a combustion chamber on spending," Calvert said. "We want accountability. That's why we are so diverse. There are many who believe in those (core values)."

"I got fed up with all the spending and the bailouts of the banks," said Jaroch, an industrial engineer who is married to a civil engineer and has three children.

"Personally, we've had to cut the cable and endured layoffs. I have a grandson due in March who on day one will face a $50,000 (per individual) government spending debt," she said, explaining her motives to organize the local 912 group.

No national group provides money to the local tea party and 912 groups, the organizers said.

The billionaire Koch brothers and groups they support, including Americans for Prosperity, seek influence within the tea party movement but don't have much direct impact, said Tom Gaitens, a tea party leader from Apollo Beach.

"We get no funding from them," Gaitens said. "It's all grass roots, contacting people and staying in touch over the Internet."

Today, the nation's largest tea party political action committee, the Tea Party Express, will launch the first day of its "Rallying for Victory" bus tour with stops in Jacksonville, Winter Park, West Palm Beach, The Villages, Gainesville, Panama City and Pensacola.

The group will bring together tea party activists and allow the candidates, if any choose to schedule an appearance, to voice their views.

"We have not endorsed anyone yet, but that could happen over the weekend," chairwoman Amy Kremer said.


Reporter José Patiño Girona contributed to this report.   tjackovics@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7817

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