By PAULINE ARRILLAGA, Associated Press
SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Three years ago he was merely a face in a very large crowd, standing outside the Alamo on Tax Day as Glenn Beck spoke of drawing a line in the sand.
A businessman, husband, father of five and grandfather of 14, Bruce Baillio bought a miniature "Don't Tread on Me" flag and watched, a little sheepishly and mostly silently, as a movement was born before his eyes. Like most of America, he didn't know then what the tea party was.
Today, he is part of what it is morphing into.
Twice a month at the Jim's Restaurant not far from his home, Baillio unloads tea party T-shirts and baseball caps, sets an American flag on a Formica table and leads his neighborhood tea party group — one of 23 in the San Antonio area — in a discussion. They talk about the Obama administration's policies regarding insurance for birth control, about how to become a delegate to the conventions that help determine the Texas GOP's leaders and platform.
He does this every first and third Tuesday of the month, even though he knows some are already writing the tea party's obituary. In this, the first presidential campaign since the dawn of the movement, no single contender has been christened the "tea party candidate." And what was once the boisterous focus of American politics is now the butt of Internet insult: "Ding Dong — the Tea Party is dead!" wrote one blogger.
"Are we dead?" Baillio asked several of his members on a recent Tuesday. About 15 had gathered on this night, including retired military men, grandmothers, a few real estate brokers, a city utility worker, a high school Spanish teacher and a photographer.
Their responses were steeped in the kind of confidence that comes with clout, and the San Antonio Tea Party has gained some of that.
"We're persistent and keep driving the issues home," said one member.
"We communicate with each other and ... when it comes time to vote, we'll definitely pull the ballot lever," replied another.
And there was this, from an ex-Air Force man wearing a "Vote. Declare Yourself" shirt: "We're becoming active in things that we didn't even think about before this all began ... and we are finding that our difference is very, very tall. All they're doing when they call us dead is creating something called silent resentment."
Dead the tea party is not. Changed? Perhaps. But still very much alive, in the back room of a Jim's Restaurant in San Antonio and many other places across the land.
It screamed onto the scene with a memorable rant by a reporter on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Then came the giant Tax Day rallies. The jeers at town hall meetings about a still fledging national health care proposal. Protests in Washington, D.C., with Beck, and bus tours featuring Sarah Palin.
It all culminated with the tide-turning elections of 2010, when the tea party revolution sent new conservatives to governors' mansions, statehouses and, of course, Congress — helping to fuel the largest turnover in the U.S. House in more than 70 years.
But where has the tea party been since? It's a common question, especially as many saw the GOP presidential campaign unfolding without any meaningful tea party influence. Sure, there was a Tea Party Express rally last fall in New Hampshire, featuring most of the Republican presidential hopefuls. And, later, that same group co-sponsored a debate with CNN.
Still, so-called "umbrella" organizations such as the Tea Party Express, the Tea Party Patriots, FreedomWorks and others haven't, to date, put their names behind any one candidate. And only in recent weeks have tea party darlings such as U.S. senators Marco Rubio of Florida and Mike Lee of Utah finally weighed in — endorsing likely nominee Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor whom some see as un-tea-party-like as one could be, in part because of his state's own health care reform law.
Some local tea party groups (in Massachusetts, for example) have divided over divergent priorities — whether to make conservative economic principles or conservative social issues paramount. Others, such as the Tennessee Tea Party, have disbanded altogether.