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D.C. hub for tea party providing organizing muscle for Rubio's senate bid

WASHINGTON — Debbie Wilson will arrive here Sunday with tens of thousands of other conservatives for a "9/12" taxpayer march. Then she'll return home to Florida to engage in a different sort of rally:

Every day until the Nov. 2 election, Wilson plans to call 100 voters and urge them to support Marco Rubio, the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate.

"We could lose the country that we have," said Wilson, 52, who lives in Apollo Beach near Tampa and views the midterm elections as a critical juncture in history and Rubio as a defender of the conservative ideal.

Wilson is one of thousands of activists in Florida — and many thousands more across the country — who are transforming the angst behind the tea party movement into a grass roots machine operating outside the traditional campaign and party structure.

The effort could be key for Rubio, who is in a three-way race with Gov. Charlie Crist, running as an independent, and Democrat Kendrick Meek. Every vote will matter.

Behind the voter drive is FreedomWorks, a Washington group that's providing organizational support to tea party groups since they began to emerge nearly two years ago amid anger over the bank bailouts and the election of President Barack Obama.

"We've protested and turned out hundreds of thousands of people across the country," said Brendan Steinhauser, the group's director of federal and state campaigns. "If we can get those same people to walk neighborhoods and make phone calls, that's what is going to turn it into a political force."

FreedomWorks is headed by Dick Armey, a former GOP congressman from Texas, and critics say it is proof the tea party has been stirred, if not invented, by Republicans under the cloak of an organic movement.

The group does not deny that it aligns with Republican concerns but said it encourages the independence of each tea party group, adding that it has taken on GOP candidates who have lost sight of conservative ideals.

"This movement," says Florida director Tom Gaitens, a 44-year-old commodities trader from Apollo Beach, "is the second American revolution."

The war imagery carries over to the "boot camps" FreedomWorks holds for activists, teaching them how to recruit like-minded neighbors, stage rallies and form get-out-the-vote networks.

They have learned how to stay on message when talking with voters: Hammer at the rising debt and financial uncertainty and stay away from social issues like gay marriage.

They know it's a good bet a conservative voter lives at a house flying the American flag, or with a truck parked in the drive way. To spread and enforce the message, they have been encouraged to hold "coffees" with neighbors.

If it sounds familiar, it is. FreedomWorks embraced some of the ground-breaking community organizing techniques that lifted Obama to victory.

Obama's machine, Organizing For America, still exists, but Democrats face a tough midterm election due to the struggling economy. The primaries have already shown that Republicans are more motivated to head to the polls.

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FreedomWorks, through its political action committee, plans to spend $10 million in the elections and has identified dozens of "limited government conservative" candidates in key states that will get support. The law does not require the organization, registered as a nonprofit, to disclose its financial backers.

The candidates with FreedomWorks support include GOP challengers to Democratic Florida incumbents, including Reps. Allen Boyd, Alan Grayson, Suzanne Kosmas, and Ron Klein. But the key Florida focus is Rubio.

His rise to the top of the Senate race was due in part to early enthusiasm from tea partiers, who pounced on Crist's support for Obama's stimulus plan. Facing defeat in the Republican primary, Crist launched an independent bid and remains hanging with Rubio. Meek is also contending.

A three-way race makes for tight math. Rubio will get most of the hard Republican support, while Meek stands to draw the hard Democrats and Crist tries to take a piece of both as well as some independents.

The battle may come down to the swing voters who are not set on one candidate.

FreedomWorks has identified 40,000 who could hold the victory for Rubio. "They are independent leaning, fiscal conservative, Reagan Democrats," said Steinhauser said.

Starting next week, tea party activists will begin calling those voters. Using a sophisticated computer system, volunteers can work from home, allowing out-of-state volunteers to help out. A group in Maine a few weeks ago was encouraged to work for Rubio.

Each day Wilson logs onto the FreedomWorks website and enters the "war room," where she can sign up to make calls. Already she has made hundreds on behalf of Scott Brown, the Republican senator who won a shocking victory earlier this year in Massachusetts, and Rand Paul, a tea party darling who has emerged as the front-runner for a Senate seat in Kentucky.

The phone effort will be buttressed by Rubio yard signs and door hangers paid for by FreedomWorks. Stacks of signs and stickers sit in the group's office in Washington, ready to be shipped to volunteers.

An instruction manual given to boot camp graduates offers advice such as, "You should offer to personally put the bumper sticker on the person's car as this assures the bumper sticker gets to do its intended job."

Rubio has been careful to avoid being too closely attached to the tea party label, reminding reporters he is running as a Republican. But while his campaign cannot coordinate with FreedomWorks due to election law, it has benefited greatly. He has appeared at numerous tea party events, and plans to speak Sunday at one in St. Petersburg.

Wilson will march in Washington, but she'll go back to work for Rubio when she gets home.

A longtime Republican, Wilson said she began to feel dispirited during the 2008 presidential election, viewing John McCain as not conservative enough. After Obama won she wondered, "How did this happen?" and began to study voter turnout.

In February 2009, Wilson attended her first FreedomWorks training session in Tampa and soon joined a tea party and 9/12 group. Months later, she said she feels optimistic.

"It's not that I think the country is going to collapse," Wilson said. "But I do believe the many things I hold dear to my heart are going by the wayside. It's now or never."

About The Midterms

The Midterms is a series of occasional stories exploring the policy, the politics and the people driving the 2010 elections. Read previous stories at links.tampabay.com.

D.C. hub for tea party providing organizing muscle for Rubio's senate bid 09/09/10 [Last modified: Friday, September 10, 2010 10:20am]

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