MANATEE -- When Marco Rubio campaigned here in 2010 for the U.S. Senate, among an adoring crowd was a clutch of Tea Party Manatee enthusiasts, wearing the movement’s trademark yellow shirts.
Written on their backs was the slogan: “Defend your Constitution.”
The Republican candidate went on to win the race with help from voters sympathetic to the Tea Party -- which hopes to again influence the outcome of races during this presidential election year.
Whether they carry a twig or a club depends in large part on primary results, say local politicians, pollsters and educators.
“Our core values and basic tenets are fiscal responsibility, limited government, free markets and defending the Constitution,” said Steve Vernon, Tea Party Manatee vice president. “We’re not really affiliated with the Republican Party at all; most of our members are independent -- but some are Republicans, like myself.
“It is no problem, whatsoever, because the Republican Party has become more and more like the Tea Party all the time.”
Vernon, a Lakewood Ranch contract negotiator, described the Tea Party’s message as a form of reminder.
“Our core values, the way we see America, our desire for personal liberty and defending the Constitution, is exactly what the Republican Party used to be about,” he said in an interview with the Herald last week. “And now, we’re just bringing them back.”
A presidential “straw poll” of 65 people attending a Tea Party meeting last week at Bradenton’s Mixon Fruit Farms showed Rick Santorum first, with 34 votes; Mitt Romney, with 19; Newt Gingrich with eight; and Ron Paul with four, Vernon said.
“I’ve already voted absentee ballot,” said Vernon. “I voted for Santorum because he was the best choice of those I had to choose from, the most conservative without being too radical.
“Romney didn’t do all that bad for good reason: He is moving towards being more and more conservative, and more in line with our values, the Tea Party’s values.”
Although the Tea Party is a movement rather than an official political party, it is having an effect on the candidates, said Kathleen King, chairman of the Republican Party of Manatee.
“They’re obviously a huge force, because we’re in a very competitive Republican primary,” King said. “They’re making the candidates stay true to conservative values and principles. “It’s a positive burst of energy, so it helps energize the party,” she added. “The Republican Party is the party of conservatives, fiscally and socially, so we share a lot of those positions on the issues.
“Everybody is pulling together, we’ll always have a range, but at the end of the day, we’re going to be united behind our common goals and values and agenda, we’re going to try to take back the U.S. Senate, and we obviously want to take back the White House,” King said.
The Tea Party has inspired passion and high voter turn-outs, according to University of South Florida political science professor Susan MacManus.
“I think the Tea Party, to say it hasn’t been influential, would be an error, because they have,” she said.
She noted how candidates are starting to talk more about the fiscal side of things, focusing more on regulatory relief and the constitutional basis for decision-making.
“On those three issues, the candidates have become more outspoken,” said MacManus.
“That’s one reason the votes have been splintered among them -- things important to the Tea Party, there’s different priorities. To some Tea Party people, it’s all about spending control and bringing down the debt; for others, it’s too much government.”
After the Jan. 31 Florida primary, two things could happen, according to Sarasota pollster Tom Eldon, president of SEA Polling LLC, who is working with Democratic congressional candidate Keith Fitzgerald.
Romney will try to move toward the center, or more moderate part of the political spectrum, as has always been his pattern, and the Tea Party might react very negatively, Eldon predicted.
Can Romney win if he doesn’t move to the center?
“It’s a lot tougher,” Eldon said. “The pattern has always been to move to the right in the primaries, and move to the center for the general election. But the Tea Party is so mobilized online, if he says something they don’t like, everybody will know.”
Still, if Romney wins the Republican nomination, Tea Partiers will in large part stand behind him, Eldon predicted.
“The Tea Party’s problems with (President) Obama will probably make them stay in line,” said Eldon. “They won’t like it much, but I think they’ll do it.”
The split among conservative voters and the messy Republican primary battle, meanwhile, is a big plus for President Obama.
“Any time your opponents are having a mud fight, it’s good, because you’re not in the mud fight,” Eldon said.
Doug Stapleton, 77, a Bradenton building contractor who is a supporter of Tea Party Manatee, first liked Republican candidate Sarah Palin, then Herman Cain, and finally, Newt Gingrich.
The lifelong conservative Republican, who hails originally from Indiana, lives modestly and is debt-free, and plans to vote Republican again, regardless of who the nominee is, he said.
“I’ll support Romney if he gets in, I just don’t know whether he’ll be able to beat Obama,” said Stapleton. “I question that. If Newt Gingrich got in, I think Newt could beat him quicker than Romney.”
The Tea Party has not only affected the Republican Party, but also has moved the Democratic Party “into being more cognizant of the fact people can’t afford any more taxes,” said state Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton.
“The citizens are fed up with government that continues to spend money it doesn’t have,” said Bennett.
“They’re looking for balanced budgets, some way to make Social Security and Medicare survive, and do it with due diligence.
“They’ve done a wonderful job of bringing these issues out in the open, and I hope they stay at it.”
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031.