To the consternation of conservatives, Charlie Crist, the Republican governor of Florida, gave a warm embrace to Barack Obama, the newly elected president, who was in the sunshine state to distribute money from the $787bn stimulus package that Congress had just enacted – spending condemned by the emerging Tea Party groups.
Mr Armey, whose Freedom Works group has played a key role in organising the disparate outfits that comprise the Tea Party, will on Wednesday commemorate Hug-Gate by staging an embrace with Marco Rubio, the insurgent, Tea-Party-backed Republican who is trying to derail Mr Crist’s second run at the Florida governorship.
Mr Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, is among the best-known of a group of conservatives trying to replace established Republican names – whom activists like to call Rinos: Republicans in name only. Polls suggest that Mr Rubio may pull off a dramatic defeat of Mr Crist.
Mr Armey, who played a role in helping Scott Brown to be elected to the Senate in last month’s shock Massachusetts election, will do what it takes to help Mr Rubio along. “I am not really a hugging type of guy – except with my wife,” says Mr Armey, returning later to emphasise that point. “But in this case there are good reasons to make an exception.”
The growth of the Tea Party movement has upset a few apple carts in Washington – most notably by helping to deprive Democrats of their controlling 60-seat supermajority in the Senate in last month’s Massachusetts vote. But controversy over a “Tea Party Nation” convention in Nashville, which began on Friday, has also highlighted its disparate character.
Mr Armey and many others are boycotting the Nashville convention, which is organised by an obscure for-profit group controlled by Judson Phillips, a little-known benefactor. The convention, which will on Saturday night host Sarah Palin as its star speaker, has charged $549 (€397, £346) for people to register and another $349 to hear the former governor of Alaska and vice-presidential nominee speak. That goes against the blue-collar “grassroots” character of the movement.
Some activists offer a stronger reason. Adam Brandon, a Freedom Works organiser, says: “A number of people in Nashville might be focused on social issues, like being anti-gay, or being anti-immigration and that is not a good way of building a movement. We want to focus on what we have in common, which is opposition to big government and taxes.”
Other groups such as the American Liberty Alliance and the Tea Party Patriots are also avoiding Nashville. On Friday, Tom Tancredo, a former Republican presidential candidate, appeared to confirm such misgivings when he told attendees that the “cult of multiculturalism” was as “threatening as the fiscal crisis we face”.
Michelle Bachmann, a Republican congresswoman who also pulled out of Nashville, says the movement should stick to fiscal issues. She refers to differences between the liber tarian types, who believe in small government and have no problems with abortion or gays in the military, and the cultural nativists, who hate taxes but are also motivated by all kinds of social resentment.
“We agree on 70 per cent of the agenda – which is to oppose Obama’s expansion of government and to return to the values of the Declaration of Independence,” says Ms Bachmann, a social conservative. “That’s what unites us.”
Keeping such a diverse set of outfits together is easier said than done. When reminded of the Monty Python film Life of Brian, in which members of the People’s Front of Judea are offended when they are mistaken for the Judean People’s Front, Mr Brandon laughs: “Yes it can be confusing. We should stick to what unites us. If people start bashing immigrants or gays, we’ll split.”