2012: The Year Tea Party Divides Will Come Into the Open

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There will be no single tea-party candidate in the GOP presidential primary race. Get ready for some activist in-fighting.

Tea party umbrellas - AP Mark Humphrey - banner.jpg

If you like squabbles, then the 2012 presidential primary is for you.

Not only will we be treated, this time around, to squabbling between the candidates and their respective teams (which has already begun, with some hearty badmouthing between Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney, and Rep. Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin), but we'll get to hear the gradually amplified bickering of tea-party activists, many of whom have disliked each other for years. Until now, they haven't had to pick sides in a national race; if anything can bring out their differences, it's the 2012 White House race.

Case in point: Mitt Romney's candidacy is already dividing activists, and the sniping has already begun between Tea Party Express and Tea Party Patriots, two groups that have been at odds, on and off, since 2009.

"Whoever the Republican nominee is will have to have the support of the Tea Party movement, the entire Tea Party movement," Tea Party Express co-chair Amy Kremer told "Fox News Sunday" this past weekend, even if that nominee turns out to be Mitt Romney.

With former House Majority Leader Dick Armey's group FreedomWorks already opposing Romney, Tea Party Patriots fired back at Kremer in a press release specifically about her statement:

Last weekend, a tea party "spokesperson" told Fox News that the grassroots would support any candidate opposed to President Obama.

"A pledge of allegiance to the Republican party, or any other party, violates what the tea party movement is all about and is completely out of touch with grassroots Americans," said Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder and national coordinator of Tea Party Patriots. ...

"As national coordinators of the largest tea party group in the country, we've heard little support for Romney in the movement as we interact daily with local coordinators and activists," said Mark Meckler, co-founder and national coordinator of Tea Party Patriots. "We believe it's premature to say whether anyone would support him if he were the nominee, and anyone who says that tea partiers would support him is certainly not speaking for the movement at large.

It's a not-so-widely acknowledged fact that lots of tea partiers actually can't stand one another. That's true of the leaders of Tea Party Patriots and Tea Party Express, two of the movement's most influential groups.

The 2012 presidential election will force activists to take sides. TPP doesn't endorse candidates, but they can clearly be angered by other tea partiers making statements about what the movement as a whole will or will not do -- and they don't seem too thrilled with the idea of Romney snagging the nomination, either. For that reason, the 2012 presidential race may just bring the intra-movement squabbles of the tea party into full focus, tint and brilliant hue for the first time on a national stage.

The presidential race will be fun to watch, because, while the tea party movement has by now become synonymous with angry Republicanism, we'll see a lot of competition over which groups get to call themselves the true believers, and which candidate lives up to the "tea party" name. It's just an added dimension, on top of everyone competing to be the next Ronald Reagan, but it could involve a lot of emotion and drama.

Make no mistake: There will be no one tea-party candidate in 2012. Different parts of the tea party movement will pick different sides, and there will be plenty of intra-tea-party in-fighting.

Image credit: Mark Humphrey/AP

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Chris Good is a political reporter for ABC News. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and a reporter for The Hill.

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