In it, but not of it. TPM DC

Marco Rubio's Tea Party Problem

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Newscom / Trevor Collens

Pam Dahl, leader of the Tri-County Tea Party based in Florida's sprawling retirement community known as The Villages, told me about the problem. It was a complaint from Dahl's group that led to Wallace's question yesterday -- Dahl said she spoke with staff from Wallace's show after an email campaign she started among led to Wallace getting inundated with calls and emails begging him to ask Rubio why he wouldn't submit for candidate "vetting." (Wallace alluded to the source of the question during the debate. "At The Villages they're not happy with you, sir," he told Rubio.)

According to Dahl, Rubio's campaign didn't respond to numerous requests for Rubio to meet with her members, who she said want to him to answer their questions about his views before they'll back him or not.

"Tea party people don't have 'candidates,'" she told me. "All we do is educate people."

She said that unless Rubio met with her group and answered its questions, it was possible tea partiers would just stay home on Primary Day, or even cast their votes for Gov. Charlie Crist.

It looks like that won't be put to the test however -- Dahl told me that after the debate, someone from Rubio's campaign finally got back to her after months of, she said, ignoring her requests. The Rubio campaign told me it tries to answer all requests for appearances, but Rubio can't be everywhere.

Other tea partiers say they're worried that Rubio is abandoning them.

"There's been a little bit of frustration that he's become more centrist," South Florida Tea Party Patriot leader Everett Wilkinson said. "He used to reach out to us, but now his staff won't get back."

"I know he has to budget his time," Wilkinson said, "but he's also got to take care of his base -- the tea party put him where he is in the first place."

At the debate, Rubio said to he values his tea party support. "[I]f there's a formal vetting process, I've not been made aware of it. But I can tell you that I'm proud of my association with the Tea Party folks and the fact that we have attended multiple events across the state throughout my candidacy."

But Tea partiers said it was clear from Rubio's answer that he doesn't really get how the movement works.

"If Rubio believes that the Tea Party movement is not organized then he is mistaken," tea party activist Robin Stublen told me. "Locally these groups are highly organized...Just because we do not have a central figure to put on TV every night does not mean there is no organization. We have conference calls weekly and discuss issues and direction during those calls."

Phone conversations with several other tea party leaders echoed the fear that Rubio is taking the movement for granted. They say he won't answer official tea party questionnaires, and they're not yet convinced he's the man the national media has said he is -- namely, the embodiment of the tea party agenda. And they're worried he's not making time for them, just like an "establishment" candidate.

"I've been burned many, many times," Florida 9/12 group organizer Cindy Lucas told me when I asked her why Rubio needed to be vetted. She leads a group of around 1700 tea partiers across the Florida and says she's one of the movement's earliest activists in the state.

"I'm not going to get burned again," she said. "I'll sit out if I have to."

Lucas said Rubio has declined to answer a survey her group submitted to his campaign as early as last fall. Though it has some locally-generated questions on it, she said its largely the same questionnaire used by groups like hers across the country.

She said that some in the movement feel like Rubio has been anointed the tea party candidate by national groups, just like Gov. Charlie Crist was named the establishment choice when the NRSC endorsed him shorty after he declared his candidacy. Lucas said she first became aware of Rubio as the tea party choice after Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) backed him. But that endorsement didn't come with the answers what Lucas said were the "tough questions."

For one thing, tea partiers want to know more about Rubio's stance on immigration, Lucas and Dahl told me. They're also worried that he supports "public-private partnerships," which they lead to government intervention in the free market.

For a better understanding of what the tea partiers are looking for from a candidate, one only need to look to former Sen. Bob Smith (R-NH) who tried to reboot his political career after moving to Florida with a run against Crist and Rubio. Smith dropped out last week after making barely a dent in the primary fight.

Smith was all but invisible to national political reporters during his brief time as a candidate. But tea partier after tea partier told me today they were moved by his willingness to meet with them and his interest in answering their questions. They knew who he was, and many of them liked him. Smith's campaign manager, Charles Winn, told me today that Rubio ignores the frustration of the tea partiers at his peril.

"Rubio's going to have to be totally candid [with the tea partiers]," he said. He said that groups are still skeptical of Rubio and worry about his reticence to submit to vetting. "I don't think he's automatically going to get them," Winn said.