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3 primaries pose key test for ‘tea party’

Incumbents in Alaska, Florida, Arizona look to keep their seats

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Tuesday marks the final major test of "tea party" power in the primaries, as challengers try to capitalize on anti-incumbent sentiment in Alaska, Arizona and Florida, and incumbents hope to avoid becoming the latest victims in what's been a rough year for officeholders.

The Sunshine State holds the most intrigue, featuring a battle for the GOP's gubernatorial nomination between longtime state Attorney General Bill McCollum and businessman Rick Scott, who on Monday won the backing of the Florida Tea Party.

On the other side of the aisle, Rep. Kendrick B. Meek is trying to fend off another businessman and political newcomer, Jeff Greene, in the Democrats' Senate primary. Meanwhile, in Arizona, Sen. John McCain appears poised to head off a challenge from a former Republican congressman, and former Gov. Sarah Palin in Alaska has put her credibility and political clout on the line by backing an unheralded challenger to incumbent and in-state rival Sen. Lisa Murkowski.

Mrs. Palin has become a synonym for tea party power, thanks in part to her high-profile endorsements of insurgent conservative candidates. But she is taking her biggest gamble Tuesday when the candidate she has endorsed, Joe Miller, faces off against the better-funded Mrs. Murkowski.

Mrs. Palin has recorded an automated phone message in an effort to bring out voters. She said Mrs. Murkowski, who is in her second term, is the most liberal of any incumbent Republican senator up for re-election this year. Mrs. Palin also has taken to her Facebook page to urge support for Mr. Miller.

"Our country does not need another Democrat in the Senate voting for the Obama agenda, which is bankrupting us," she said, pleading for her supporters to contribute to Mr. Miller's campaign for a last-minute push.

Mrs. Murkowski's camp argues that Mrs. Palin is referring to some votes for spending bills that included earmarks Mrs. Palin herself requested as governor. Her campaign also says Mr. Miller is distorting the senator's long voting record in opposition to President Obama's health care overhaul.

Mrs. Palin also has made an endorsement in the Senate race in Arizona, though this time she is backing the incumbent, Mr. McCain, who made her a national figure by selecting her to be his running mate in his 2008 presidential bid.

Polls show Mr. McCain has taken control of this race against former Rep. J.D. Hayworth as the incumbent has embraced stronger border security and fended off attacks over his record on tax cuts.

The McCain campaign this week pronounced Mr. Hayworth "deader than Elvis," while on his Twitter feed Mr. Hayworth lamented being drastically outspent by Mr. McCain.

"It's sad that our senior senator cannot run on his own record," Mr. Hayworth wrote, saying Mr. McCain is "instead spending $21 million attacking me through a buy & lie strategy!"

Florida may offer the day's best test of anti-incumbent sentiment.

In the Republican governor's race, Mr. Scott, a health care executive, has tried to portray Mr. McCollum, who has one of the most recognized political names in Florida, as a career politician and Republican Party hack who is out of touch with the needs of average Floridians.

On Monday, Florida Tea Party Chairman Fred O'Neal said Mr. Scott is the only candidate in the race "with proven business experience combined with shared conservative values."

But the business experience comes with baggage. Mr. Scott was ousted as head of the Columbia/HCA hospitals chain in 1997 in the midst of a major fraud scandal involving Medicaid and Medicare payments.

Mr. McCollum, meanwhile, has received a campaign boost from former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a popular Republican who has stumped for the attorney general, and an endorsement from the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

The winner of that primary likely will face Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, a Democrat, in November's general election. In a memo this week, Nathan Daschle, executive director of the Democratic Governors Association, said the Republicans' bitter primary fight has damaged both candidates and left an opening for Democrats to win a governorship they haven't held since 1998.

Also on the Democratic side, Mr. Meek led in the polls in his battle for the Senate nomination over Mr. Greene, despite Mr. Greene's repeated accusations that the congressman is beholden to special interests.

Whoever wins that primary will compete in a three-way battle with Marco Rubio, the Republicans' presumptive nominee, and Gov. Charlie Crist, who fled the GOP earlier this year and is running as an independent.

After Tuesday, the next big date on the political calendar is Sept. 14, when voters in seven states and the District of Columbia will round out the last of the major primaries.

The power of tea party anger has been a major theme, and Republican candidates have tried to capture the issues that are driving those voters.

Kevin Howley, associate professor of media studies at DePauw University who has studied the tea party movement, said the tea party appears to be a rebranding effort for the GOP, whose image suffered during the administration of President George W. Bush.

"The tea party provided 'cover' for Republicans at a time when the GOP brand was damaged by the Bush administration's assault on privacy, grinding [military] occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan and the ensuing economic meltdown," he said.

Democrats see an opening, too, particularly to try to raise money from their base off of fears of a tea party takeover of the GOP.

On Monday, Senate Democrats' campaign arm sent out a fundraising plea from James Carville warning of a "Triumvirate of Tea" — three Republican Senate candidates who the Democratic strategist said would "drag us back to the policies of a certain bumbling Texan."

Mr. Howley said Democrats have an opportunity to use the tea party as a wedge among various factions of the GOP, and the movement could end up helping rally the Democrats' dispirited ranks.

"The fearmongering coming from 'star' Republicans like Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin — a tea party favorite — may motivate Democrats and independents who might otherwise sit this one out to cast a vote come November," he said.

Polls suggest the tea party is a polarizing force, though candidates associated with the movement appear to have an advantage.

PJTV, a conservative-leaning Web-based news site, has commissioned weekly polls on the tea party movement. Since the surveys began Aug. 1 support has been steady.

The Aug. 15 survey of 1,000 likely voters found that 27 percent "strongly support" the tea party and 29 percent "somewhat support" the movement.

When it comes to voting, 49 percent were more likely to vote for someone labeled a tea party candidate, compared with 38 percent who were less likely to vote for that person.

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