AP Photo/Julie Jacobson
Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2010 | 2 a.m.
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Midway through her speech at a Tea Party Express rally here Monday, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin said her goal, and that of the conservative group hosting the event, is not to see Republicans in general win this crucial midterm election. No, she is backing a specific brand of conservative.
“These are constitutional conservatives,” she said, running through a list of her approved candidates for Congress nationwide before the crowd in the parking lot of a vacant shopping mall. The list included Nevada GOP Senate candidate Sharron Angle.
“Politicians, some of you who are in office today, need to man up and spend some political capital supporting these Tea Party candidates,” she said.
Palin and her enthusiastic supporters present a particular challenge to Republican candidates in Nevada — be seen alongside them and risk alienating independent voters who may see the Tea Party as a circus act; don’t and risk being branded as unworthy of the conservative stamp.
That conundrum might explain why many Republican candidates were noticeably absent from the rally stage.
GOP gubernatorial candidate Brian Sandoval was touring a Reno high school as the Tea Party Express rallied across town.
“We’re focused on visiting schools, visiting nonprofits,” he told a reporter who asked why he wasn’t at the rally.
He wasn’t willing to be drawn into a debate over the Tea Party’s primary message — that government’s role in individuals’ lives should be significantly curtailed. “That’s a broad question. I’m just focused on my race,” he said.
Sandoval hasn’t spent the entire campaign dodging such rallies. He attended the largest, most publicized one in Searchlight this spring.
Still, Sandoval’s name didn’t make the list of gubernatorial candidates Palin implored the Reno crowd to support because of their conservative bona fides.
To the surprise of some, Angle, who has cultivated the Tea Party vote since the earliest days of her primary campaign, did not share the stage with Palin, one of the most popular figures in the conservative movement. In fact, Angle hasn’t headlined a Tea Party Express rally since the group endorsed her in April and began spending more than $1 million in the form of an independent expenditure to see her elected.
But the reason was likely more legal than political: Strict federal laws prohibit candidates from coordinating political speech with organizations operating independent expenditures, and Angle’s campaign didn’t want to be accused of coordination.
But Angle wasn’t the only GOP candidate not to show.
Even some of the Republicans in attendance didn’t appear to want to make a high-profile appearance. One longtime Northern Nevada Republican activist wore a bulky coat and baseball cap pulled low on her forehead.
“I’m just here to help the party out,” she said, tugging her hat a little lower.
The voters at the Reno rally shared a deep skepticism of politicians, even those who appear to carry the conservative standard.
Even Angle, who has been among the most philosophically pure conservatives in Nevada politics, didn’t earn unconditional support.
“We’re going to give her a try,” said Michelle Schneider, a Reno Republican. “I’m not completely sold on any of them.”
Rep. Dean Heller, R-Nev., who doesn’t have a competitive race in his heavily Republican 2nd Congressional District, was the only Republican candidate to jump onstage at the Reno rally. He didn’t speak and simply waved to the crowd.
Heller’s spokesman Stewart Bybee said he couldn’t speak for why some Republican candidates didn’t show for the event. But he said Heller has long enjoyed a strong relationship with Tea Party activists.
“Fundamentally the Tea Party’s goals are about government intrusion in everyday lives,” he said. “That is where the congressman and the Tea Party share a common value.”
Some said it’s not necessarily the Tea Party brand that Republican candidates are worried about associating themselves with. It’s their strategy to avoid any situations they don’t completely control during the final days of the campaign.
“There’s enough risk when coming down the final stretch of campaign even with their own events,” Republican strategist Robert Uithoven said. “When you start attending events of other groups that could cause even more problems — especially when you can turn an ad around in 24 hours or less. Those images could cause a distraction for a campaign.”
Sun reporter David McGrath Schwartz contributed to this story.