It will be a hard sell, he said. “I think the tea party [movement] is looking for a credible commitment to the ideas of limited government and fiscal conservatism, which is how the Republican Party lost all these guys in the first place,” Mr. Kibbe said with a laugh.
But other leaders said they’ve never talked with anyone from the Republican Party. Contacted for this story, an RNC spokeswoman said she would call back with examples of contacts between the party and tea party organizers. She never did.
The RNC’s Mr. Steele, facing challenges to his leadership from within the party bureaucracy, has claimed his outreach to the tea party and other conservative groups outside the party is part of the reason for the tension inside the Republican hierarchy.
“I’m the guy that they’re afraid of because guess what? I’m a tea partier, I’m a town haller, I’m a grass-rootser,” he told a St. Louis radio show earlier this month.
The tea party movement is amorphous and, in many ways, not a party at all. It’s a grass-roots movement that caught fire across America shortly after President Obama took office, fueled by opposition to the massive economic stimulus bill and to Mr. Obama’s signature health care reform initiative. A dozen or more groups sprang up almost overnight, and now there are hundreds of local and state-level groups, some with leaders in every county of a state.
In theory, that could be a major plus for Republicans, who proved unable to match the national outreach Mr. Obama orchestrated in winning the 2008 presidential election.
“The tea party movement is this massive, leaderless movement that is already organized in all the battleground states,” Mr. Kibbe said. “So you literally have this standing army of people that are more than capable of doing all of the traditional get-out-the-vote, voter-advocacy efforts that the party has struggled to build with lots of money and lots of energy and lots of resources.
“So basically, the party needs to step up on that platform and put out candidates who are appealing to this massive energy that’s out there,” he said.
Still, that “energy” is not yet channeled into the Republican Party, and former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, a tea party favorite, doesn’t appear ready to help. She rejected an invitation to appear at this year’s Conservative Political Action Committee convention, long the gathering point for conservative Republicans, and instead accepted a keynote speaker role at what’s being billed as the first national tea party convention, to be held next month in Nashville, Tenn.
Some Republican leaders, like Mr. Gingrich, say the GOP need not take over the insurgent movement, but must instead simply focus on common goals.
“They can be allies of the Republicans without being identified as Republicans,” the former speaker said. “And that’s important. It allows conservative Democrats and people who are independents, but who are fed up with [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi, [Senate Majority Leader Harry] Reid and Obama, to find an interim home.”
But a failure to persuade the tea party movement to join forces with the Republican Party or at least not to war openly with Republicans could be disastrous, he said.
“Then you’d have a third party that was real, and that would frankly be a huge mistake by Republicans. Republicans need to learn how to work with allies, not try to dictate to them,” Mr. Gingrich said.