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Konrad Yakabuski

Palin and Tea Party mature into a political force Add to ...

There are a few ways to describe Sarah Palin and the Tea Party movement in the same sentence. Made for each other, would be one. Reviled by the "lame-stream" media they both rail against, might be another.

After Ms. Palin closed the first-ever Tea Party convention - with a fiery address that fleshed out the themes of a potential 2012 presidential bid she conceded Sunday would be "absurd not to consider" - the Partiers and their muse showed they have something else in common.

Both have evolved from the erratic and easy-to-dismiss forces that arrived on the U.S. political scene in 2008 and 2009, respectively, to become more polished and strategic players. As such, near-term American politics will reflect their influence in ways few could have imagined only weeks ago.

For the Tea Partiers, who are still loosely assembled in hundreds of sometimes competing groups at the local and national levels, the three-day Nashville convention that ended with Ms. Palin's Saturday night speech proved the movement's detractors dead wrong. Instead of attracting racists and reactionaries, as its critics contended it would, the event resembled a gathering of fiftysomething ratepayers in sensible shoes.

That reflects the conference organizers' recognition that the Tea Party movement will go nowhere unless it sheds its extremist label. The more it looks to be a movement of everyday Americans uneasy about taxes, national security and encroaching government - in other words, basic American values - the more political influence the Tea Party is likely to wield.

After Nashville, more politicians seeking to win Republican and Democratic nominations for this year's midterm elections are likely seeking an invitation to the Tea Party.

And money, too. Tea Party Nation, the social-networking site behind the convention, announced Friday that it would set up a political action committee with an objective of raising $10-million (U.S.) this year. Under U.S. electoral law, a PAC can solicit donations from the public to fund candidates of its choosing.

Indeed, an endorsement from the Tea Partiers is fast becoming second only to one from Ms. Palin herself as conservative candidates in this year's midterm congressional elections harness (or take cover from) a voter backlash in the face of the $1.6-trillion federal budget deficit, the unpopularity of Barack Obama's proposals to inject more government into health care, and the President's perceived weakness in dealing with accused terrorists.

"It's pretty cool to see some of the Blue Dog Democrats peeking under the tent, you know, and finding out, what is this movement all about," Ms. Palin said Saturday in reference to the Democratic Party's conservative wing. "You've got really both [the Republican and Democratic]party machines running scared, because they're not knowing, 'What are we going to do if we don't have Tea Party support?' They know that they won't succeed."

Though she insisted the movement "is bigger than any king or queen of the Tea Party," Ms. Palin is leveraging her popularity with its membership to play kingmaker in dozens of primaries now under way in the run-up to this fall's midterm vote, when all 435 seats in the House and a third of the Senate seats are up for grabs.

Last week, she spurned the establishment Republican candidate and endorsed Rand Paul, son of the libertarian GOP congressman Ron Paul, in his bid to win the party nomination for a Kentucky Senate seat. And despite tensions between the two, even Ms. Palin's 2008 running mate, Senator John McCain, has enlisted her help to rally Tea Party support as he fends off a more right-wing rival in the Arizona Republican primary.

Ms. Palin has used some of the eight figures she's earned from sales of her autobiography and speaking engagements to buy advice from seasoned political consultants and pay for a small personal staff to enhance her grasp of domestic and foreign policy.

It has allowed her to express her views with more confidence and polish. When she is not speaking from a prepared text, she still tends to slip into the idiosyncratic syntax for which she was ridiculed in the 2008 campaign. Her diehard Tea Party fans hardly seem to notice or care.

It is unlikely their adoration alone could provide Ms. Palin with a broad enough base of support to win the Republican presidential bid in 2012. And her symbiotic relationship to the movement might prove a liability if the anger and frustration that fuelled its rise subsides as the U.S. economy recovers from the recession.

Aside from her anti-government views, Ms. Palin is no Ronald Reagan, whose legacy she repeatedly invoked on Saturday night, as if to claim a bit of his aura for herself. Mr. Reagan managed to combine his warrior words with personal warmth, his free-market principles with an avuncular empathy. Ms. Palin has yet to demonstrate that dexterity.

But it would be highly premature to count her out, just as it remains too early to dismiss the Tea Party movement she so inspires. Both have shown unexpected political savvy of late.

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Follow on Twitter: @konradyakabuski


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