The Tea Party and its impending dilemma

It’s impossible to say with certainty whether in late 2007 any Republican leaders understood the power of the movement that Ron Paul’s candidacy had revealed. The excitement it sparked could be seen in their rear view mirrors, as many of the party’s chairman hopefuls would later voice. But what can be said with certainty is that the GOP establishment, and Fox News, looked in the eyes of the first Tea Party movement and did not like what they saw.

* * *

Several weeks after Paul’s Tea Parties, news circulated that he, along with Duncan Hunter, would be excluded from a pivotal New Hampshire debate. The timing was politically devastating. Hosted by Fox News and sponsored by the New Hampshire Republican Party, the debate was scheduled only two days before the state primary. By not being included in the debate, a message was being sent to voters — Ron Paul was not a viable candidate. Looking for a villain, Paul supporters began attacking Fox News for the exclusion. But from the initial reports, it wasn’t clear who was responsible for the unvitation.

Reports surfaced that a Fox spokeswoman pointed to the New Hampshire Republican Party as the one choosing the January 6th showdown participants. The state party later issued a statement suggesting that Fox News should not be in the business of excluding serious candidates, and noted that talks were ongoing with the network.

Paul supporters were outraged. In the first Republican primary in Iowa, Paul received over double the votes of Giuliani and he was polling higher than Thompson in the upcoming New Hampshire primary — yet both were invited to participate in the debate. And at the time there was no definitive leader. Compounding their frustrations, his campaign was widely thought to have outraised any Republican candidate in the previous quarter — and just came off of a reported one-day online fundraising record. If left out of the debate it would mark the beginning of the end of his candidacy.

As the debate neared, it was becoming apparent that the network would not be extending an invitation. The New York Times reported that the network was limiting participation to those polling in double digits nationally. What made this response confusing was that Paul was included in a Fox News debate scheduled four days after the one in which he was excluded. The New Hampshire GOP abruptly backed out as sponsor on the eve of the debate, citing that, “All candidates regardless of how well known they are or how much money they’ve raised should be treated equally here.”

As any savvy campaign would do, the Paul team planned a series of publicity events to use the exclusion to their advantage. Whenever possible, Paul referenced the snub, claiming Fox News was “scared” of him. His supporters took to the web, lambasting the network for what they saw as its control of the political process. The Monday after his exclusion, Paul appeared on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno to air his positions — a message Leno felt should have been heard the night before.

As anticipated by poll numbers, Ron Paul would go on to receive more votes than Fred Thompson in New Hampshire. He would, however, pay a price for his bad-mouthing tour.