RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Today is Election Day, which means it was a year ago that an energetic and angry Tea Party movement helped Republicans take control of the U.S. House of Representatives. Now, with a presidential election a year away and the primary season almost upon us, the movement finds itself searching for ways to have the same kind of impact this time around.

NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Last year, the Tea Party celebrated on election night with candidates like Rand Paul, who captured a Senate seat in Kentucky.

SEN. RAND PAUL: But tonight there's a Tea Party title wave, and we're sending a message to them.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

GONYEA: After the election, the congressional Tea Party Caucus doubled in size to more than 60. Among them, Illinois Republican Joe Walsh. In April, he talked to NPR about the need to keep the pressure on House Speaker John Boehner and other Republicans.

REP. JOE WALSH: I've been hard on our leadership because I'm one of these Tea Party freshmen who want as many spending cuts as we can get.

GONYEA: The Tea Party Caucus took a hard line in debate over raising the debt ceiling this summer, pushing the government to the brink of default. The movement didn't get the result it wanted, but it did take credit for forcing a debate.

Through it all, the Tea Party kept an eye on 2012, with events like this summertime bus tour organized by the Iowa Tea Party's Ryan Rhodes.

RYAN RHODES: Well, first off, I want to thank everybody for coming out here today. It's - especially on a beautiful day here. I hope this will be very useful to everybody coming.

GONYEA: The Tea Party's goal was to have as big an impact on the presidential race as it did on congressional contests last year. An early favorite of the movement was congresswoman Michele Bachmann of Minnesota. She kicked off her presidential campaign in Waterloo, Iowa, describing a GOP made up of fiscal and social conservatives.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

REP. MICHELE BACHMANN: And it's made up of the Tea Party movement, and I am one of those.

GONYEA: But Bachmann has since dropped in the polls as other candidates have courted Tea Party votes. They are Herman Cain, who's battling allegations of sexual harassment; Ron Paul; Rick Perry; Newt Gingrich; and Rick Santorum. The one thing most Tea party activists seem to agree on is that they don't like Mitt Romney, whose big sin was signing a Massachusetts health-care law.

But the chill goes both ways. He was asked about the movement by NBC's Brian Williams, at a debate in California.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

BRIAN WILLIAMS: Governor Romney, are you a member of the Tea Party?

MITT ROMNEY: I don't think you carry cards in the Tea Party. I believe in a lot of what the Tea Party believes in.

GONYEA: Still, Romney remains at or near the top of the polls, even with little or no Tea Party backing. But he's not entirely without friends in the movement.

CHRISTINE O'DONNELL: Governor Romney is not getting a fair shot from the Tea Party - from some in the Tea Party.

GONYEA: That's former U.S. Senate candidate from Delaware Christine O'Donnell, a favorite of the Tea Party though she lost the 2010 race for the seat once held by Vice President Joe Biden. It was an election Republicans expected to win, had O'Donnell not knocked off moderate Republican congressman Mike Castle in the primary. O'Donnell's primary win was a victory of ideology over electability. Now, she defends Romney - citing electability.

O'DONNELL: We need to consider who is going to be able to beat Barack Obama. And right now, we've got a field of candidates. And some of them are going to get crushed by the Obama machine, and some of them have the infrastructure to beat Barack Obama.

GONYEA: The Tea Party does have a much higher profile this election. It even flirted with the establishment by teaming up with CNN for a televised debate.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

WOLF BLITZER: We also want to welcome our co-sponsors: the Tea Party Express, and more than 100 state and local Tea Party groups from across the United States.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

GONYEA: But that event also brought about moments like this, when moderator Wolf Blitzer asked candidate Ron Paul what happens if someone chooses not to purchase health insurance, has an accident, and winds up in the hospital, in a coma.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

BLITZER: But Congressman, are you saying that society should just let him die?

RON PAUL: No.

UNIDENTIFIED AUDIENCE MEMBER: Yeah!

GONYEA: Congressman Paul answered no. But an audience member shouted, yes. It prompted a new round of criticism of the Tea Party as heartless, and ready to dismantle the social safety net. Over the past year, the public support for the movement has fallen off. In a September CNN poll, 53 percent of those surveyed had an unfavorable opinion of the Tea Party.

MATT KIBBE: I think we have taken some hits; our negatives are up some. But that's the price of leadership.

GONYEA: Matt Kibbe is with the group FreedomWorks, one of several national organizations that has lent financial and other support to the movement. He says the Tea Party of today is very different from the one that began back in 2009.

KIBBE: It's a natural evolution. We started as a protest movement. We morphed into a get-out-the-vote machine. But now we're, literally, thinking locally and acting nationally. And that, to me, is an exciting and maturing of the Tea Party movement.

GONYEA: Kibbe says it's too soon to say if there'll be a presidential nominee the movement can rally around. If not, he says, then the focus will be on congressional and Senate races. He says they know they can have an impact there, just as they did one year ago.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

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