TAMPA — When Republicans nominated John McCain for president in 2008, conservative groups associated with the tea party had yet to form.
Four years later, these groups say they are practically writing the party platform ahead of the Republican National Convention here next week.
"We're extremely happy that the tea party can have this type of influence," said Ryan Hecker, a legal adviser for FreedomWorks, the conservative advocacy group founded by Dick Armey. "We've definitely taken over the Republican Party."
More than 100 delegates met Monday at the Marriott Waterside to draft the Republican platform in a sneak peek of the Aug. 27-30 convention. The platform is a 50-page document that provides policy statements that will guide Mitt Romney's presidential campaign from here on out.
Weeks ago, FreedomWorks had 30 ideas posted on its website so members could log on and vote for the ones they wanted Republicans to include in the platform. Hecker said that after 1.2 million votes, 12 ideas were selected.
The ideas include repealing Obamacare, scrapping the tax code and replacing it with a flat tax, reining in federal regulation while eliminating government jobs and auditing the Federal Reserve. He said Republicans were lobbied by his group to include these ideas.
Although the platform hasn't been released, Hecker said that he has seen much of the draft and that 10 of the 12 ideas have been included nearly word-for-word from how they were written by FreedomWorks. Parts of the remaining two are in there, as well, he said.
"Everyone is expecting Romney to move to the center," said Debbie Wilson, an Apollo Beach resident who is a member of Tampa 912 and a state coordinator for FreedomWorks. "But I'm pleased to see that so far, the platform is very much to the right."
GOP platforms since at least 1996 have been conservative in nature, said Al Cardenas, the chairman of the American Conservative Union, a volunteer post.
By now, about 80 percent of the work on the platform is done. This week will be a matter of tweaking language here and there, inserting or deleting clauses. The 112 delegates voting on the platform will approve a draft tonight that will be submitted for a vote on Monday by the full convention.
But Cardenas said he was impressed so far with how well the platform is getting done, calling it unusually well-written with little disagreement.
"I'm delighted; it's one of the best drafts I've seen," Cardenas said.
Monday's discussion about the platform revealed an interesting quirk about the tea party. Although members of their groups say they hail from the working class, many support policies that could hurt them.
Take the one tax cut that isn't guaranteed in a Romney presidency: the mortgage interest deduction. It makes ownership affordable to millions of middle-class Americans. A motion was made Monday to include its protection in the platform.
"This is the last vestige of why people want to buy a home," said April Newland, a Virgin Islands delegate and a Realtor. "It sends a message not just to Realtors, but also to homeowners. It should be included because it would be so widespread."
But it was defeated after pushback from delegates like Kevin Erickson, a pastor from Minnesota who calls himself a "Ron Paul Republican," after the maverick Texas congressman.
Including the protection of the mortgage deduction would ruin tax-reform efforts, Erickson said.
"(The mortgage deduction) is why we can't talk about tax reform," Erickson said. "Everyone has their pet deduction."
This year's platform was the result of greater participation among voters than ever, said one of the platform committee's co-chairs. U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., said the GOP website got 30,000 votes on various policies to be included.
Asked if the tea party played any special role, Blackburn said only that people in general had better access to party officials as they wrote the platform during the past two months.
"We've heard from thousands of people and we've had meetings with groups all across the country," she said. "I don't think any one group has had a special say. Everybody has had special access, through snail mail and social media like Facebook and Twitter."
Platform chairman Bob McDonnell, the governor of Virginia, said the tea party didn't have an exaggerated influence on the rightward tilt.
"We're a conservative party," he said.
But many of the delegates credited the tea party with setting the tone of the platform.
"They started the main conversation that we're having now about the economy and the deficit," said Cam Ward, an Alabama state senator who said tea party groups are very powerful in his district. "It's a good debate, and I'm glad they've had the impact that they've had."