If members of the South Carolina arm of the Tea Party were prepared to vote in a bloc, with nearly half of the state’s Republicans identifying with the movement, the GOP nomination would be theirs to decide.
But with less than seven weeks to go before the Jan. 21 South Carolina primary, the group is looking more decisive than ever. The only belief they apparently share: Obama has got to go.
"The Tea Party is all over the place," Charleston Tea Party chairman Mike Murphee said.
Murphee said most people are still looking for the best candidate to beat Obama.
"You've got a real tough decision," Murphee said. "But any one of them in the debates now, I'll take any of them that they give me."
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann are waging battle over the hearts, minds and ballots of Palmetto State Tea Partiers, and it’s not pretty.
Bachmann, a rising star in the polls just three months ago, is attracting smaller support now than ever after seeing her light dimmed by the surges of first Gov. Rick Perry, then businessman Herman Cain and now Gingrich. As the founder of the Tea Party Caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives, she rightfully claims Tea Party members as a core of her support.
But Gingrich, who has surged from single-digits to one-third of the state’s likely Republican primary voters in the past two months, needs that support if he was going to mount a serious challenge to the long-considered-frontrunner, former Gov. Mitt Romney.
So when Gingrich began growing operations in the Palmetto State, opening up offices and hiring campaign staffers, he looked to several leaders in local Tea Party groups.
Gingrich's grassroots efforts are being led by state Rep. Joshua Putnam in the Upstate, former Jon Huntsman state field director DeLinda Ridings in the Midlands, Myrtle Beach Tea Party leader Gerri McDaniel in the Pee Dee and Tea Party veteran Chris Horne in Charleston. Joanne Jones, vice chairwoman for the Charleston Tea Party, is also on board under the leadership of state director Adam Waldeck and policy director Vince Haley.
"Gingrich is more of a traditional Republican," said College of Charleston political science professor Kendra Stewart said. "But when you look at the this field of Republican candidates, he shares some of the same values as the Tea Party as far as shrinking government."
Bachmann staffers responded by building a list of 37 Tea Party officials across the state who support her, and naming a Tea Party leadership in the state. Gingrich responded on Sunday with his own list of 40 Palmetto State Tea Party backers.
Bachmann staffers also distributed an email to supporters labeling Tea Party leaders and activists who took positions with Gingrich's campaign as sell-outs.
The email sent out by Bachmann's South Carolina Communications Manager Wesley Donehue reads, in part:
"Hey everyone — Newt Gingrich is trying to get a hold on South Carolina’s Tea Party activists. He’s just having one major problem — Tea Party activists know that Newt is the epitome of a Washington-insider...
"Because of these massive problems, Newt is doing the only thing he can ... he’s trying to buy the Tea Party movement. He is hiring Tea Party leaders as full-time staff and throwing fundraisers for Tea Party organizations. Just like his days in Washington, Newt still thinks he can just buy people off.
"Those who have sold out to Newt have not only undermined their own credibility in the SC TEA Party movement, but they have also seriously jeopardized the credibility of the entire movement for South Carolina by lining up behind a candidate that is the antithesis of all that it embodies."
One of those alleged "sell-outs" is former vice chairman of the Columbia Tea Party Allen Olson, who left his position with the Tea Party group to take a position with the Gingrich campaign. Olson said he made his decision to join the former Speaker's organization following his appearance at Sen. Jim Demint's Labor Day forum in September.
"It was at the Demint Forum when Newt talked about his Strong America Now plan and cutting the budget with lean Six Sigma," Olson said. "Seven candidates have signed a pledge to use Six Sigma and Gingrich has been the only one really pushing it, so that shows me he's really committed to it."
A former Bachmann supporter, Olson said the Minnesota Congresswoman's campaign turned him off when it hired Donehue and began going negative.
"There are some Tea Party members working as paid staff for the Gingrich campaign," he said. "But most of those people have previous experience working on campaigns so I really see no problem with them working for Newt's campaign."
Olson said Bachmann's campaign is trying to make the Tea Party into a monolithic voting block, but the Tea Party isn't like that.
"Each candidate will get some support from the Tea Party," he said.
Stewart said Bachmann has lost support from an early surge for much the same reason Paul has never really broken through as a front-runner. Despite Bachmann's conservative positions largely consistent with Tea Party ideals, Bachmann is not seen as a viable candidate, Stewart said.
"She doesn't poll well at all against Obama," Stewart said. "(Tea Party voters) want someone who shares their values, but they also want someone who can beat Obama. They don't see her as a viable candidate."
Whether Gingrich can hold onto his growing support through Election Day may depend on Texas Rep. Ron Paul, Stewart said.
"Paul's platform is the epitome of what the Tea Party stands for," Stewart said. "But Ron Paul may not have the support to win so people may throw their support behind Newt if it looks like (Paul) can't beat Romney."
Murphee said that much of the energy behind the Tea Party has come from those seeking to overturn the establishment. So as Tea Party voters scrutinize Gingrich more closely now that he is leading the pack, that anti-establishment streak may take some of the wind out of his sails.
"If Romney wins, if the first thing out of his mouth is to pull the party together he may build a lot of folks support," Murphee said. "But a lot of people are turned off by Romney, and Newt has his own baggage too, they just haven't found it all yet.
"The establishment is what we'll get from Romney and probably from Gingrich too.”
Olson, who believes Gingrich will capture the nomination and presidency, begrudgedly admits Murphee is correct.
"I don't like to say this, but he is a seasoned politician so I think he can sustain his momentum," Olson said. "All his baggage has been uncovered and vetted."
Murphee said Bachmann's campaign ought to be careful when throwing around terms like “sold-out."
"I think that sounds like sour grapes," Murphee said. "If we've got Tea Party people working on Newt's campaign then he must have struck a chord with them."
"These people, I highly respect them. Their opinions matter and accusing them of selling out for a wad of cash, I'd be careful there with that."
He said the Tea Party activists and organizers being accused of selling out are the same ones that went to town halls and rallies and voted in droves during the 2010 midterm elections.
Spartanburg Tea Party organizer Karen Martin said she likes and respects Bachmann, but not Donehue, who she accused of providing cover for Lexington State Sen. Jake Knotts when he referred to S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley and Obama as "ragheads" during the gubernatorial campaign in 2010 on Donehue's Pub Politics. The site chose not to publish the video of the encounter.
"I don't trust anything from Wesley Donehue," Martin said.
Martin added she is disappointed that Bachmann's campaign hired Donehue and has been saddened by the campaign's attacks and negativity.
For her and many of her Tea Party members Donehue presents a Catch-22 for the Bachmann campaign: if Bachmann is familiar with Donehue's tactics and history then they are disappointed Bachmann gave him such a high position in the campaign; on the other hand if Bachmann doesn't really know him that speaks to an ineptness and lack of focus on vetting trusted staff.
Martin said Tea Party support is still all over the map, including some die-hard Cain supporters, even after he suspended his campaign. She also sees strong support remaining for Bachmann, Paul and former Sen. Rick Santorum in addition to the growing support for Gingrich.
She added that there is no enmity between the Tea Party supporters of the various candidates, and that trying to sow the seeds of dischord among the group as Bachmann's campaign is doing will likely backfire. She said the Tea Party's main goal is to replace Obama.
Martin said there are three fairly recent strikes against Gingrich for many in the Tea Party. In addition to his "right-wing social engineering" comment to NBC's Meet the Press in May, Martin said the Tea Party is most upset about Gingrich appearing in a commercial with Nancy Pelosi and agreeing that we as a country need to do something to stop climate change, and by Gingrich endorsing Dede Scozzafava over Doug Hoffman in the New York District 23 House of Representatives special election in 2009.
"I think that Newt can pull it off if he doesn't screw up too badly," Martin said. "He doesn't have any more chances to screw up."
While there are Tea Party members stridently against Romney, Martin says the group will come together for the general election, regardless of the nominee.
"The only person the Tea Party will work harder against than Mitt Romney is Pres. Obama," Martin said.
Murphee said as chair of the Charleston Tea Party he feels an obligation to remain neutral during the primary campaign and facilitate getting as many candidates in front of as many Charleston area voters as possible so they can make an informed decision in the voting booth in January.
But Murphee admits he is fond of Paul, who is running for the presidency for the third time. Paul has been one of the most conservative voices in the House for his entire career and is a perennial favorite of both capital "L" and small "l" libertarians.
"I have a big libertarian tilt myself," said Murphee, who admitted he may support Gingrich if not Paul. "A lot of what he talks about and his ideas are sound."
College of Charleston’s Stewart said there is a possibility that someone like Paul could mount a third-party run for president if Romney were to win the GOP nomination, however it's a small possibility.
"The question is, how dedicated is the Tea Party to its ideals, and will they put thier support behind Ron Paul, or someone who can beat Obama?" Stewart said. "A lot of polling suggests that the time is ripe for a third party candidate."
She said while a third party run could be damaging to the GOP like Ross Perot's 1992 candidacy was to then Pres. George H.W. Bush, or Ralph Nader's Green Party run in 2000 was to Democratic candidate Al Gore, it would serve the purpose of keeping Tea Party issues a focus for the GOP going into the general election when candidates typically tack to the middle to woo independent voters.
"It will depend on how upset Ron Paul is with the Republicans," she said.