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PHOENIX — Two years after the first tea party rallies, leaders and activists of the small-government, grass-roots movement gathered here this weekend to ensure it remains relevant in conservative politics.
The weekend conference, which emphasized strategy more than policy specifics and where cowboy hats were more prevalent than colonial tricorns, was a step away from angry protests and toward organized advocacy.
Tea Party Patriots National Coordinators Mark Meckler and Jenny Beth Martin kicked off the summit Friday evening by regaling the 2,300-person audience with stories about the Washington establishment and Speaker John Boehner.
“He looks at both of us and he says, ‘So what can I do for you?’” Meckler said, recalling a meeting with the Ohio Republican last year. “Jenny Beth looks at him and says, ‘Absolutely nothing. ... We’re just here to let you know there are millions of people out there and we’re all watching you.’”
Roaring applause followed from the crowd that remains as distrustful of Beltway politics now as it is was before helping Republicans win control of the House in the midterm elections.
The outcome of the three-day event was identifying five focus areas for the next 40 years: education, economics, culture, the judiciary and the electoral process. However, tea party leaders did not provide any firm details on what they plan to do in each issue area.
Movement leaders said their goal is to be the MoveOn.org of the 2012 elections and that principled stances on the national debt and other issues will rally the GOP base.
“We don’t have to tell [our members] who to vote for,” Meckler told Roll Call. “That is a very short-term approach. That’s what has been done over and over and brought us to where we are today.”
To that end, and because of lingering skepticism of politicians, leaders in the movement say they are more focused on platform than candidates and personalities in the presidential race.
While former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Rep. Ron Paul (Texas) and former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain tried to court the crowd this weekend and the tea party group conducted a GOP presidential straw poll, activist leaders said they did so hesitatingly.
“Part of that is giving folks what they expect,” said Randy Lewis, a Virginia-based activist and former Carter administration aide who serves as the movement’s spokesman. Democrats “can’t win if we’re focused on issues. They need a face to hang.”
Cain won the live straw poll, and Paul swept a coinciding online poll, even though both are considered third-tier contenders in the presidential race. Both emphasized tax cuts in their speeches at the Arizona convention, and Paul received standing applause for saying Congress should eliminate the federal income tax and all foreign aid.
Such views could alienate activists from the lawmakers they helped elect. Tea party activists still have little tolerance for the culture of compromise on Capitol Hill. On Saturday, freshman Rep. David Schweikert (R-Ariz.) tested the idea of raising the debt ceiling as a way to bargain with Democrats for cuts. After he spoke, 94 percent of the crowd voted against raising the limit.
Ralph Reed, founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, told conference attendees that a focus on platform, not people, could help the tea party avoid the same disappointments that conservatives felt after the 1994 Republican revolution.
“I think we’re at a very similar moment to where we were in February of 1995,” said Reed, who led the Christian Coalition in the 1990s. “We were sitting with a misplaced euphoria and naive triumphalism that we had defeated” President Bill Clinton.
He urged the tea party to look beyond its opposition of President Barack Obama and his health care overhaul to a policy platform that Republican candidates would back.
“We need to formulate the agenda and hand it to them and say, ‘This is what we’re running on,’” he said. “If you’re organized, they won’t have any choice but to swear fealty to the agenda you’ve put out there.”
But how that translates into a presidential platform, which would also have to address contentious issues such as gay marriage and abortion, remains to be seen. Tea Party Patriots has avoided stances on conservative social issues and tried to steer politicians toward fiscal ones.
“We have to play a significant role in shaping what everybody talks about starting in Iowa,” Lewis said.
And regardless of who wins, Lewis said, tea party members would continue pushing for their agenda.
“We’re just going to have to be somewhat cold and demanding as soon as somebody’s elected. We’re not going to give them a break,” he said. “This movement is not going to be sentimental at all about the people it elects.”