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Guide to Tea Party Influence in Early States

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Freshman Rep. Allen West could be the kingmaker for a candidate in the 2012 GOP presidential primary.

Republican presidential hopefuls are not facing an easy task as they attempt to woo tea party activists for 2012.

The early presidential primary states boast throngs of tea partyers, but each tea party faction is as diverse as the next. Here’s a look at which groups have influence in the states holding the earliest nominating caucuses and primaries — and the issues that top their agendas.

Florida

The large Sunshine State presents a challenge for candidates as they court the conservative activist groups.

Several Florida-based sources told Roll Call that tea party activism has dwindled since the 2010 elections, which saw major gains for the GOP. But groups in Pinellas County, Orlando, Fort Lauderdale, Punta Gorda and St. Augustine boast big tea party numbers and are aiming to sway voter sentiment in 2012, Republicans say. The South Florida Tea Party is the most active group, attracting thousands to rallies.

Freshman Sen. Marco Rubio (R) may be a favorite for Florida conservatives, but he said he won’t endorse a 2012 candidate before the primary. Look to freshman Rep. Allen West (R) instead as a potential kingmaker.

Iowa

In a movement that takes pride in being decentralized, tea party activists here have become inadvertent powerhouses.

With the Beltway group American Principles in Action, the Iowa Tea Party today begins a three-week bus tour featuring at least six heavy hitters in the GOP field: former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, businessman Herman Cain, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson.

“The candidates want to be able to have access to the tea parties, and we want to see how they reflect on the Constitution and the repeal of Obamacare,” said Ryan Rhodes, a leader of the Iowa Tea Party.

It’s an opportunity for candidates and activists to get to know each other, and the Iowa Tea Party gives the hopefuls a large audience — its email list tops 10,000 subscribers.

“I think Iowa has a great responsibility because, whether they like it or not, we get to be representative of other groups,” Rhodes said. “Iowa is a representation and a magnification of issues all across the country.”

Topping their list of concerns: jobs, gas prices and inflation.

The candidates are expected to take turns appearing on the 18-stop tour, which also includes training on being effective in the Iowa caucuses and lessons on the gold standard — a pet issue for American Principles in Action.

Judd Saul of the Cedar Valley Tea Party, located in an area that encompasses Waterloo, where the Iowa-born Bachmann plans to announce her White House bid, said tea partyers there are excited about the June 16 bus-tour stop in that region. Rumors abound that Bachmann will officially declare her candidacy that day.

“What the tea party is doing is filtering out the real people who pay attention to being fiscally conservative from the people just doing lip service,” Saul said.

Nevada

The California-based Tea Party Express chose to kick off its 2010 campaign in Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s hometown to send a signal that it wanted to put Silver State Democrats on notice. But it also wanted to irritate Republicans in Washington who had made it clear that party official Sue Lowden was their preferred GOP candidate to challenge Reid. The group’s support for Sharron Angle reshaped the primary race, and the tea party favorite upset Lowden in a crowded field.

There are at least 20 local tea party groups across Nevada with varying influence. Immigration has been a rallying issue.

It’s not yet clear how active Tea Party Express or the local groups will be in influencing the early 2012 Nevada caucuses.

New Hampshire

This state rocked the “Don’t Tread on Me” Gadsden flag before it became tea party chic. But the “Live Free or Die” motto trends more libertarian in New Hampshire than hard-right conservative.

The January election of a tea partyer and relative newcomer to politics to lead the New Hampshire GOP is evidence of the growing pull these activists have in the state. Jack Kimball narrowly won the chairmanship over establishment favorite Juliana Bergeron, and holding that post he’ll play a significant role in staging candidate forums, debates and must-attend events over the next eight months.

The local chapter of Americans for Prosperity has been among the most active groups, hosting a Tax Day tea party rally with several presidential hopefuls this spring. The Tea Party Patriots, one of the most active national groups that aims to sway legislative economic policies, has a noticeable presence in the state.

Cornerstone Action is also active in the Granite State, with a focus on social issues. The group has made repealing gay marriage a key element of its agenda.

Ovide Lamontagne, who narrowly lost a 2010 Senate primary bid, leads the Granite Oath political action committee. He’s become a must-visit tea partyer for 2012 candidates and will likely play a role in how activists view the hopefuls next year.

South Carolina

Social conservatives so far seem to be winning over the many active tea party groups in the Palmetto State.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) came in second in the influential Greenville Tea Party’s straw poll and won a major GOP straw poll in Greenville, the state’s largest county. Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) also has frequently appeared in the state.

Tea party groups in Myrtle Beach and Beaufort are among the most active, and the Charleston Tea Party hosts regular town halls for candidates at the state and local levels.

The Columbia Tea Party has hosted rallies with Gov. Nikki Haley, who won a tough primary battle last year thanks to former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and tea party activists.

Some tea party activists want to see home-state Sen. Jim DeMint, one of the most conservative Republicans in the country, run for president. Should DeMint rule that out, his blessing would boost any GOP candidate. DeMint backed former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in 2008.

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