WASILLA - The foothold for Alaska's nascent tea party effort is in Wasilla, a blue-collar town where Sarah Palin got her political start and members of the movement are seeking to become a force in upcoming elections.
Many in Wasilla still have deep loyalties to Palin, but the real concern among tea partiers has nothing to do with the hometown political hero. The real reason many have gotten involved in grassroots politics is what they see as government intrusion, eroding civil liberties and out-of-control federal spending.
Within the past year, the Conservative Patriots Group has grown from a scattering of disaffected voices into arguably the best-organized and most-visible tea party-type group in Alaska.
While small compared to the state's political parties, claiming "several hundred" dues-paying members, the Conservative Patriots have become involved in local elections, working to defeat a sales tax initiative and to win assembly seats for conservative candidates. The group recently launched a conservative radio talk show and wants to vet candidates it might support in 2010 elections.
Local lawmakers are taking notice. So is the state GOP, which expects the grassroots movement to help mobilize voters and advocate for candidates Conservative Patriots consider the more conservative during the primaries.
But can the Conservative Patriots, and the tea party movement in Alaska generally, succeed?
While Palin has become a darling of the tea party movement nationally, Conservative Patriots organizers say she doesn't speak for them. They say the group, while having Palin supporters among its ranks, stands on its own, propelled by the desire to advance conservative principles and not by personalities.
One of the directors, Frank Bettine, says there's no interest in forming a formal party; he also shrugs off the "tea party" tag, defining his group as a "nonpartisan grassroots organization" committed to promoting conservative values.
Turnout for tax-day rallies next week could be telling in whether fires stoked last year - by President Barack Obama's taking office, federal health care reform and the soaring national debt - remain hot or whether Alaska's tea party movement is destined to be a flash in the pan.
"Up to now, it's been fun, a show," said Jerry McBeath, a political science professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. But it takes money to organize, to run effective campaigns.
He said if you were to ask him now, "the prospects of it fizzling are as great as the prospects for it influencing the primary and general elections."
Bettine sees that as a challenge.
Like many who have attended tea party rallies, Bettine and his wife, Jennie, are new to playing active roles politics. They have faithfully shown up on Election Day over the years, but he said they'd never been so public about their views until last year when the push for overhauling health care, on top of issues like taxes and rising federal debt, left them convinced the country was "going to hell in a hand basket."
The couple, in their early 60s, helped form the Conservative Patriots to keep the energy and momentum from rallies going.
Dozens of people - young women, families, men in caps and Carhartt jackets, retirees, middle-aged couples - came to a recent weeknight meeting, greeted by smiling attendants and country music filtering from the flag-decorated stage.
The speakers' take-home message was clear: Conservatives must stand up, stand together, and hold elected leaders accountable.
That doesn't mean Republicans or members running for office will be given a pass.
State Rep. Carl Gatto, a Republican from nearby Palmer who has established a conservative reputation in the Legislature, said he is a member of the group. While he tries to vote for what's "right for the people," he is not confident he'd have the group's automatic endorsement. Bettine says he's right.
That tea party enthusiasts have found a welcoming home Wasilla isn't all that surprising, though it may have less to do with Palin than people outside Alaska might think.
Wasilla has long attracted those seeking their own piece of Alaska, a plot of land not too far from Anchorage but not too far from the backcountry or good fishing, either. The vibe is libertarian; God doesn't pop up a lot in political discussion, but family, guns and freedom do.
On a recent night at the Mug-Shot Saloon, Fox News beamed from big screens, the talking heads drowned out by rock music, video gaming machines and political talk at the bar.
Ted Anderson mulls the state of the union over a beer. He's not sure what to think. The bar owner says he's a registered Republican but an independent "at heart." There's no getting around government, he said, but it's gotten too big, too intrusive, and the push to overhaul health care magnified that, he said.
"I'm so very proud of the American people finally gathering together to be heard," said Anderson, who said he's not a tea partier. "We want what's best for the country."
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