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The squabbles that erupted over this weekend's Nashville gathering reflect larger challenges facing a hot political phenomenon. Tea Party members drew headlines last summer with protests over health care legislation at congressional town hall meetings and a September rally against big government, held in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol, which attracted thousands.
That's just one of many organizations that sprang up under the "Tea Party" name after CNBC reporter Rick Santelli delivered an anti-government rant on TV last Feb. 19.
To whoops and applause from traders on the floor of theChicago Mercantile Exchange, Santelli argued that President Obama's bill aimed at reducing foreclosures would force fiscally responsible Americans to bail out people who bought more house than they could afford. "We're thinking of having a Chicago tea party in July," Santelli added.
Santelli was kidding, but his words galvanized conservative activists. Within hours, Phil Kerpen of Americans for Prosperity, another conservative think tank, had registered a website called taxpayerteaparty.com.
"It was a cathartic moment for a lot of people," Kerpen said.
Since then, more than 3,200 websites containing the words "tea party," have been registered with Go Daddy, which calls itself the world's largest Internet domain name provider, said company spokeswoman Elizabeth Driscoll. Five organizations using the name "Tea Party" have registered political action committees with the Federal Election Commission.
The different groups are the movement's strength, Tea Party enthusiasts argue. "It really is a grass-roots movement," says Tom Gaitens, a FreedomWorks field coordinator who has worked with a number of Tea Party groups in Florida. "They want to remain local."
The disdain for centralized authority that has given the Tea Party movement much of its energy also has led to disputes over who has claim to the Tea Party name.
• In Tennessee, concerns about the $549 registration fee at the Tea Party convention prompted Reps. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., and Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., to cancel appearances. Palin, in a USA TODAY column, said she "thought long and hard" about participating. The former Alaska governor said she will donate her speaking fee "right back to the cause." She and event organizers will neither confirm nor deny several news reports — including on Fox News, where she works as a commentator — that put her fee at $100,000.
• In Texas, activists with Tea Party links are split in the Republican primary for governor. Armey is backing Sen.Kay Bailey Hutchison's challenge to Gov. Rick Perry in the March 2 primary. Palin campaigns Sunday for Perry. Debra Medina, a former GOP county chairwoman with a libertarian platform, has been working the Tea Party circuit as she seeks the GOP nomination.
Meanwhile, Dale Robertson, who owns the website TeaParty.org, has filed papers to run as an independent. He was repudiated by the Houston Tea Party Society after being photographed holding up a sign with a racial epithet. He does not deny carrying the sign.
• In Florida, there is a legal dispute over the Tea Party name. Orlando lawyer Fred O'Neal, who registered a third political party under the Tea Party banner, is being sued by local Tea Party chapters. "This has caused confusion amongst our members," said Everett Wilkinson, chairman of the South Florida Tea Party and a plaintiff in the case.
The family feuds underscore the delicate task ahead for Republicans who want to tame a tiger that so far has refused to be led. Bob Porto, a Tea Party activist from Little Rock, said his chapter is steering clear of political parties to avoid becoming "their rent-a-sticks."