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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.
This is the moment when Republicans either grab an opportunity - or lose it. The party has ferociously opposed President Obama's health-care plans. Whether a bill finally passes or not, Republicans believe they have gained from the energy of the debate. That debate has revived a conservative base that's at the heart of the Republican Party. But conservatives are going in so many different directions at once that they are becoming harder for the party to manage. One place you can see the conflicts is in the primary elections for the U.S. Senate, where Republicans are deciding the kinds of candidates they will support in the fall.
Here's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.
MARA LIASSON: If you're a Republican candidate running for Senate, you want to be able to say this...
LIASSON: We're the Tea Party candidate. We're the one that is running against, basically, the establishment.
LIASSON: That was the front-runner in the Kentucky Republican senatorial primary, Rand Paul, son of congressman and libertarian hero Ron Paul. Across the country in California's Senate primary, conservative Chuck DeVore, who's running against two better-funded and more moderate Republicans, praises the Tea Party's strength in this MSNBC interview.
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LIASSON: ...their passion for the Constitution, their passion for a basic, limited government.
LIASSON: All over the political map, the Republican establishment is trying to manage the anti-tax, anti-spending, anti-Washington sentiment that's behind the decentralized movement known as the Tea Parties. The GOP is trying to capitalize on it, but it's not always in its control. In Utah, it's gotten away from them. The incumbent Republican senator there, Bob Bennett, is in danger of losing his seat to a Tea Party-backed challenger. The conservative Club For Growth has been running this anti-Bennett ad.
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U: Since Utahns last sent Senator Bob Bennett to Washington, he voted to bail out Wall Street, voted for billions in wasteful spending.
LIASSON: Even the former Republican presidential nominee, John McCain, is facing a strong primary challenge from former congressman J.D. Hayworth. Hayworth has been embraced by conservative talk radio hosts like Michael Savage.
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LIASSON: J.D. Hayworth, who is a genuine conservative, a true one, running against John McCain, a genuine rhino, or a Republican in name only.
LIASSON: McCain has been moving to the right to fend off this challenge, and so have other Republicans. Former Hewlett-Packard CEO and social moderate Carly Fiorina, who's running for Senate in California, tells voters she has Sarah Palin values. Former Republican congressman Rob Simmons of Connecticut, known as a moderate, now tells voters he carries a tea bag in his pocket. All these candidates know that even though it's not an organized political party, the Tea Parties are a powerful force. Jennifer Duffy, who tracks Senate races for the Cook Political Report, saw what happened in Massachusetts with moderate Republican Scott Brown.
LIASSON: Tea Party activists quickly adopted him - frankly, without knowing much about him. And while there's not a huge Tea Party movement in Massachusetts nationally, they actually started pouring money into his race. And in the last 10 days of the contest, that campaign was raising, on the Internet, about a million dollars a day, unsolicited. I mean, we've really never seen anything like it out there.
LIASSON: The Democrat in charge of preserving his party's majority in the Senate, Bob Menendez of New Jersey, argues - optimistically, perhaps - that the Tea Party energy coursing through the Republican primaries this year will come at a price.
INSKEEP: I look at their primaries as costing them a lot of money and shedding a lot of blood, moving them ideologically off the center of the political universe, which is important as it relates to the general election and therefore, overall debilitating.
LIASSON: But that's certainly not the case in Florida, where Marco Rubio is challenging Governor Charlie Crist in the Senate primary. Rubio has become the Tea Party candidate, and he was endorsed early on by South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, who introduced him last month at the CPAC convention in Washington.
INSKEEP: Last May, I was in a meeting with Republican senators, who were giddy after endorsing Governor Crist in Florida.
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INSKEEP: At that time, Governor Crist led little-known Marco Rubio by over 30 points.
LIASSON: Now, as everyone knows, Rubio has surged past Crist in the polls, and is favored to win both the primary and the general elections. And Jim DeMint, who has endorsed a series of conservatives running against the candidates recruited by the national party, doesn't mind one bit that he's giving his own party's leaders fits.
INSKEEP: I think all of us need a little heartburn right now, until we get in more alignment with where America really is.
LIASSON: DeMint said says he is backing conservatives because he wants the Tea Party activists to stay inside the Republican Party.
INSKEEP: They don't want the establishment anymore. They want some fresh faces who are trying to stop the reckless spending and the growth of government. What I've tried to do is just to go out and find some of those candidates and see if I can help put a spotlight on these Republicans who, in my mind, can help us avoid a third party by giving Republicans and independents good choices in Republican primaries.
LIASSON: And so far, it's working. There's only one state, Nevada, where a Tea Party group is running a third-party candidate for Senate. Republicans do worry he could split the conservative vote in Nevada and help the embattled Democrat there, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, hang onto his job.
But on the whole, the GOP is doing a good job keeping the Tea Parties, and all their explosive political energy, inside the Republican tent.
Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.
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