Sarah Palin is not the "tea party" movement's undisputed darling. But nobody else has been able to claim the undisputed leadership mantle for these latter-day insurrectionists, either.
Activists in the ardently bottom-up political movement say that the tea partiers say no prominent politican on the national stage completely fits their limited-government, walk-the-walk bill.
Chris Littleton, Cincinnati Tea Party president and Ohio Liberty Council co-founder, echoes the views of countless local tea party leaders when he concedes that what he really wants doesn't exist: "[New Jersey Gov.] Chris Christie's guts, [Texas libertarian Republican Rep.] Ron Paul's philosophy, Sarah Palin's charisma and [former House Speaker] Newt Gingrich's brain. Is that person out there? Not really."
After having had a profound effect in a wave of Republican primaries, the tea party is surging into next week's general elections with a tremendous wave of energy, but divided over the national crop of GOP political leaders, uncertain how broadly their core principles extend and feuding with one another over who best represents the movement.
Tea party activists of all stripes privately agree that the only worthwhile long-term goal is the takeover of the GOP at the county and state levels, to be achieved by having principled conservatives win Republican primaries. But each group argues that it is doing just that - in its own way.
Tea partiers divide into two basic political camps. Some are "INOs" - independents in name only - who hardly ever vote Democratic because they think that's tantamount to voting socialist. Many are rebellious Republicans whose agenda is to take back their party from what they see as the big spenders and war hawks who now own the GOP's commanding heights.
Taken together, the hundreds of tea party chapters, parties, caucuses and councils are a mishmash of local groups affiliated informally with a state or national group.
Some tea party activists, among them Mr. Littleton and Cleveland Tea Party Patriots coordinator Ralph King, are dead-set against creating an adjunct of the "traditional values" cause, the social-conservative strain characterized by opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage.
"The tea party movement is about our three core values," said Mr. King. "Politicians change over time; our values do not. When the Patriots took to the Boston Harbor, there were no politicians - just Patriots in disguise standing for fiscal responsibility, limited government and support of the free markets against the British Crown."
"We only stay with our three core values and encourage those wanting to be involved with social issues to support or work with groups geared to social issues. The tea party is not a Bible class," he added.
That stand has not alienated influential Christian conservatives, many of whom quietly support the efforts of Mr. Meckler and the Tea Party Patriots' other co-founder, Jenny Beth Martin.
Tea party advocates are also profoundly divided on Mrs. Palin, the former Alaska governor who is often associated with them and was the keynote speaker at the first significant national tea party gathering in Nashville, Tenn., in February.
"I don't know who is the 'best hope' for conservatives," said Tea Party Patriots national coordinator and co-founder Mark Meckler. "That has yet to become clear, and while there is some support for Sarah Palin in this regard, it is certainly not universal, nor even strong."
Mr. Littleton said he has "no idea what Palin is doing other than making a few bucks and becoming a great cheerleader."
But Amy Kremer said Mr. Meckler and the others underestimate Mrs. Palin's appeal.
"I know that Tea Party Patriots across this country love Palin, but I can't speak for the Patriots leadership," said Mrs. Kremer, national chairman of the Tea Party Express, a California-based political action committee that, unlike the other tea party groups, raises and spends money to elect candidates who pass the muster of the Tea Party Express leaders - and of Mrs. Palin.
Mr. Littleton acknowledges that Mrs. Palin, the 2008 GOP vice-presidential candidate, "seems to have character and principles." But, he said, she "lacks the substance right now."
"It could come, but she mostly speaks in platitudes," he said.
As to whether Mrs. Kremer's Tea Party Express PAC serves as a shadow 2012 presidential campaign for Mrs. Palin, Mrs. Kremer won't say yes and won't say no.
"We are not focused on presidential politics right now," Mrs. Kremer said. "We have no idea if she is going to be at more of our events. It will not be until the midterm elections are over that we focus on anything else."
Tea Party Express co-founder Sal Russo, a veteran California conservative campaign consultant, also would neither confirm nor deny a relationship between Mrs. Palin and the Tea Party Express.
For a collection of groups with shared goals, tea partiers are hardly a mutual-admiration society. Mrs. Kremer, a Tea Party Patriot leader until she got kicked out for getting too close to Mr. Russo and Mrs. Palin, is being sued by the fellow activists for intellectual-property theft and is in turn suing them.
Mr. Meckler, the Patriots co-founder, echoes the hostility that other tea partiers show for Mrs. Kremer and Mr. Russo's group.
"Tea Party Express is considered AstroTurf - fake and dirty by most real tea party organizations," said Mr. Meckler.
He added that most tea party organizations on the ground refuse to cooperate with them. They are seen as trading on the 'tea party' name for their own profit."
Mrs. Kremer countered that her Tea Party Express has a record of organizational activism, pointing to the 14-day bus tour of the country the group organized, which is scheduled to wind up in Concord, N.H., on Nov. 1. She said her group also played a critical role in the defeat of moderate Republicans such as Rep. Michael N. Castle in Delaware and Sen. Lisa Murkowski in Alaska by tea-party-backed insurgents in GOP Senate primaries this summer.
"This movement is the direct result of people being frustrated and angry with both political parties, but more so for the Republican Party, because it has gotten away from its conservative platform," she said.
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