Be careful who you sup with - the Tea Party gambit for Republicans
They were hailed as the engaged, grass-roots future of the American Right. But with less than 100 days to go until the midterm elections, the Republicans are split over how to deal with the Tea Party.
There are plenty of Republicans in the House hoping to capitalise on the popularity of the movement. But with the Tea Party increasingly viewed as a loose cannon, a close relationship with the movement is politically risky.
Conservatives across the country, many with Tea Party sympathies, are reshaping the 2010 political landscape amid anger over health care reform, bank bailouts, federal deficits and illegal immigration. Against this backdrop, the Tea Party movement, with its small government, limited-taxes message, has ignited passions among conservative voters and emerged as a potentially powerful force in November's midterm elections.
Republicans are hopeful the Tea Party will help mobilise voters on the right and strengthen support for the Republican Party.
Democrats are quietly hoping the increasingly unruly behaviour of the movement's more extreme members will work in the Democrats' favour by turning off conservative voters who will stay away from the polls. "The problem with the Tea Party is it feeds on its own. If you replace a Republican candidate with a Tea Party candidate you haven't gained much," said Richard Parker, a lecturer in public policy at Harvard University.
"The Tea Party would be valuable if they mobilised to take down Democrat candidates in swing districts."
The Tea Party movement has grown into an unwieldy beast, with no centralised command structure. While that gives the movement local energy and autonomy, it also means its wilder elements can't be kept in line.
The Tea Party Federation, which acts as a loose umbrella organisation for groups across the country, was forced to expel one of its members recently after Mark Williams, the spokesperson for Tea Party Express, called a proposal for an Islamic centre at the Ground Zero site, a place for "terrorists to worship their monkey god". The organisation's reputation was tarnished further when a group in Iowa erected a billboard comparing President Barack Obama to Hitler and Lenin, while a group in Idaho recently called for a return to gold and silver as currency, and Tea Partiers in Maine called for pulling out of all United Nations treaties.
By aligning themselves with the free-wheeling movement, Republicans run the risk of seeming undisciplined and erratic, and turning off moderates who might be tempted to vote for them. In spite of this, last week 38 Republican members of Congress added their names to the Tea Party Caucus as it met for the first time in Washington.
Caucus chairwoman and founder, Republican Congresswoman Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, claimed the caucus was non-partisan but all signees so far are Republicans.
She said: "We are not the mouthpiece of the Tea Party. We are not taking the Tea Party and controlling it from Washington DC."
This disclaimer shows how touchy the subject has become. Traditionally, caucuses are used as a way for members to show their allegiances.
Privately, Republicans are worried Tea Party candidates could prove hard to manage if they get elected. Could the radical tail of the party now be wagging the GOP dog?
Gingrich eyes white house
Republican former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich has said will decide after November's congressional elections whether he will make a run for the White House in 2012.
Mr Gingrich has openly explored entering the wide-open battle for the 2012 Republican nomination,
"That's a decision we'll make in February or March," Mr Gingrich said of a presidential run. He would join a field of Republican contenders in 2012 that also includes former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty and Indiana governor Mitch Daniels.