Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus pats House Speaker… (Lynne Sladky / Associated…)
TAMPA, Fla. — When Mitt Romney accepts the Republican nomination for president Thursday night, Rep. Mo Brooks plans to be in the hall, unlike most of his fellow freshmen in the influential tea party class in the House, who skipped the convention.
The former prosecutor and state lawmaker had considered sticking to the campaign trail in his northern Alabama district, where he is running for reelection, but decided the stakes were too high to stay away.
"It's a historic event, perhaps one of the last chances we have to save our country," Brooks said. "Are we going to be socialist and weak as a nation or are we going to be free enterprise and continue to be the greatest nation the world has ever seen?"
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As the convention got underway this week, fewer than half the 89 freshmen had RSVPd to attend, underscoring how the once largely monolithic group has splintered.
Many chose to quietly keep their distance from the ever-unpopular political class, even though they now count as members, or from their party's presidential nominee, who was not the top choice of many conservatives. Others stayed home for practical reasons, as they run for reelection in a year when the race for control of the House is not expected to be on the same glide path as two years ago.
Those who traveled to Tampa were a mixed lot — some from politically safe districts without tough reelection battles; five freshmen, including Rep. Dan Benishek, a physician from Michigan, and Rep. Sean Duffy, the MTV-reality-show-star-turned-congressman from Wisconsin, had coveted speaking roles on the first full day in the convention hall.
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), the convention's chairman, gave his troops a free pass to do as they wish. Leading this group has been a "big hill to climb," he acknowledged, particularly as Congress lurched from crisis to crisis, with a threatened government shutdown and standoff over the nation's debt.
"In terms of our freshman class, you have to remember they went through a real baptism by fire," Boehner said in a frank exchange with the media in Tampa. "They've been through a real maturation process; they understand more about their jobs, more about their constituents than they did 18 months ago."
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The freshman Republicans capitalized on voter discontent with President Obama in 2010 to usher in a House rout on par with Newt Gingrich's 1994 GOP takeover. Many are aligned with the tea party movement, which seeks lower taxes and a smaller federal government.
But in the months that followed, the tight-knit group fractured at crucial moments, such as during last year's debate over whether to raise the ceiling on the amount of the federal debt. Some chose to support Boehner's deal with Obama, while others bucked their colleagues as they pushed further to the right.
Romney's choice of Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin as his running mate particularly excited this group, because he was the architect of the House GOP budget, which makes steep cuts in federal spending and converts Medicare's health safety net for seniors into an optional voucher program.
Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas rode the GOP wave right into the most bullish wing of the conservative majority and, like Brooks, he ditched Boehner and party leaders by voting against the debt ceiling deal, deciding it was not strict enough in holding down future spending.
But this week, he was in Tampa. Kansans "are pretty energized," he said, about "the stuff the freshmen have been talking about."
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At the same time, freshman Rep. Jeffrey Landry, who is in a difficult reelection bid in Louisiana, stayed home to hold a small-business forum to address the economic issues that voters say are the most important. The fact that Hurricane Isaac was aimed at his Gulf Coast district reinforced his decision.
And Rep. Chris Gibson, who faces a tough reelection fight in upstate New York, stayed away — which appeared to have been an unexpectedly wise choice.
As Isaac gathered strength, Gibson spent the weekend celebrating reconstruction efforts in Prattsville — a historic Catskill-region town that was virtually washed away a year ago during Hurricane Irene.
"Congressman Gibson wanted to ensure he spent the district work period attending events in New York," his spokeswoman said, meeting with residents "to hear firsthand what is most important to them."