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GOP seeks its revival in the revolt against Obama's healthcare plan

Party leaders want to turn the conservative activism into votes, but find themselves the target of ire from many of the protesters.

August 16, 2009|Janet Hook and Peter Wallsten

WASHINGTON — Conservatives are calling it their August Revolt -- a surprising upsurge of activism against President Obama's proposed healthcare overhaul.

Spurred on by the success of their efforts to dominate the news at Democratic town hall meetings, conservative groups are reporting increases in membership lists and are joining forces to plan at least one mass demonstration in Washington next month.

But the conservative mobilization has also created an unusual dilemma for Republican leaders, who want to turn the enthusiasm into election victories next year but find themselves the target of ire from many of the same activists.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), chairman of the GOP's Senate campaign committee, was booed at a "tea party" rally in July for supporting the government bailout of the financial services industry.

And one of the GOP's most reliable conservatives, Rep. Bob Inglis of South Carolina, was shouted down at a recent town hall meeting when he criticized a conservative broadcaster and tried to counter claims that children would soon be forced to receive swine flu vaccinations.

"You cannot build a movement on something that is not credible," said a frustrated Inglis, referring to the vaccine issue and other false rumors being spread by more aggressive critics of the health bill.

"Going door to door, I found opposition tending toward hostility," Inglis added. "At town meetings, the hostility went straight through to hysteria."

Some GOP leaders, such as former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, have tapped into the unrest -- with Palin stoking fears on her Facebook page of "Obama death panels" that would result from the healthcare legislation. That claim, too, has been widely discredited.

Finding a balance

Others are still trying to figure out how to balance the desires of the base with the need to appeal to moderate swing voters who might be turned off by high-volume rhetoric. Whether they find that balance could determine whether the Republican Party can win back independents who voted overwhelmingly for Obama last year but now, according to several polls, are questioning their commitment to him.

The GOP might take comfort in a new Gallup survey that shows more than a third of independents who have followed the healthcare rallies in the news have gained sympathy for the protesters' views, and just 16% have lost sympathy for them. And 35% of independents approve of Obama's handling of healthcare policy.

But party leaders eager to win the middle have failed in recent years to appease the conservative base. Immigration reform, for example, proved to be a divisive issue for Republicans.

Complicating matters now is that some activists have mounted their effort against a healthcare overhaul largely outside the party machinery. They are relying on social networking websites such as Twitter and Facebook to recruit volunteers for town hall meetings and spread YouTube videos of encounters with lawmakers.

One new group, Smart Girl Politics, has drawn more than 10,000 members using the networking site Ning.

"I don't know that anybody would want to be associated with either party at this point," said Michelle Moore, a suburban St. Louis business owner and mother of two, who joined Smart Girl Politics and has helped drive activists to four town hall meetings hosted by Missouri's Democratic lawmakers.

Anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, who for years has served as a moderator of sorts between factions of the conservative movement, called the new insurgency a "series of ganglia and nodes" that are all "fed up" with Obama but not unified around a particular leader.

"I think the Republicans need a year to put themselves in front of this parade," Norquist said.

There is some organization to the conservative agitation.

About a dozen groups, including the large and well-financed FreedomWorks, led by former House Republican leader Dick Armey of Texas, are sponsoring a march on Washington on Sept. 12.

Another longtime conservative group, the 60 Plus Assn., purchased a nearly $2-million cable TV ad buy alleging that the Obama plan would put seniors' well being in jeopardy.

Republican officials hope those efforts will dovetail with signs of a party resurgence. GOP candidates are ahead in two closely watched governor's races this year in states won by Obama -- Virginia and New Jersey.

GOP fundraising, which suffered badly over the last few years, has also improved: The National Republican Senatorial Committee said its donor list has grown by 66,000.

Re-branding

Leaders are trying to re-brand the GOP as the party of fiscal discipline, fighting Obama on his economic stimulus plan, attacking his proposed global warming legislation as a massive tax increase, and portraying his healthcare agenda as a socialist takeover of the private sector.

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