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September 13, 2011 9:32 am
Barely a year after she gathered five friends in a sports bar to form a local branch of the Tea Party, Billie Tucker found herself this week presiding over Republican presidential contenders vying for her approval.
“We are the real Republican party,” she said ahead of the debate on Monday evening in Tampa, Florida. “The ones running it have gone too far to the left.”
The debate of eight Republican hopefuls, co-hosted with an archetypal mainstream media institution, CNN, solidified the place of the Tea Party in polite political society and its kingmaking role among conservatives.
Initially dismissed as a passing phenomenon, the Tea Party demonstrated its ability to make and break candidates in last November’s midterm congressional elections, flexed its muscles during the August debt ceiling debate and is now injecting its brand of populism into the 2012 presidential poll.
Ms Tucker, head of the First Coast Tea Party group in nearby Jacksonville, was one of two of the party’s leaders to take the stage, and neither were shy about their aims.
The co-chairman of the Tea Party Express, Amy Kremer, told the audience: “We are going to choose the next Republican nominee for president, not the Republican party.”
Rick Perry, the Texas governor, arrived at the debate as the frontrunner to cheers from the Tea Party audience but left with boos ringing in his ears, as he fell foul of some of their signature issues.
Mr Perry came under attack over his policy to vaccinate young women in Texas against cervical cancer and his refusal to disavow measures he bought in to allow the children of illegal immigrants to study.
The two policies run headlong into the Tea Party’s anti-government streak and its visceral opposition to current immigration policy, which is deadlocked over to how to handle the 50m-odd people living in the country, mainly Hispanics, without legal status.
“Illegal is illegal,” said Ms Tucker, dismissing proposalls for illegals to normalise their status.
The Republican’s alignment with the Tea Party on immigration has continued to drive Hispanic voters away from conservatives and may be crucial in returning Barack Obama to the White House next year.
The issue embodies the risk Republicans are being forced to run in their primaries, adopting policies to please the Tea Party to win the nomination which could in turn be poisonous in a general election.
The candidates squabbled over social security and foreign wars but presented a largely united front on one issue – the need to rein in the Federal Reserve, another pet hate of the Tea Party.
Mr Perry, criticised for his past attacks on the Fed’s management of monetary policy, did not back away from his statement.
“I said that if you are allowing the Federal Reserve to be used for political purposes, that it would be almost treasonous – I think that is a very clear statement of fact,” he said. “I am not a fan of the current chairman allowing that Federal Reserve to be used to cover up bad fiscal policy by this administration.”
Michele Bachmann, the Minnesota Congresswoman, said: “They (the Fed) have to be shrunk back down to such a tight lease that they’re going to squeak.”
Only Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, offered a partial defence of the institution, saying the body needed “oversight” but “at the same time, we recognise that we need to have a Fed.”
Ms Tucker, who said she was deeply angered by the 2007 bank bail-out, doubted reports that most of the money had since been paid back. “I think a lot of the information we have got is skewed. The words they use in Washington – they don’t mean the same to us.”
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