|Tea Party members say their biggest concern is reducing federal spending [GALLO/GETTY]
Summerville, South Carolina - The Tea Party first made national news in 2009, when loosely knit groups of conservatives across the country held rallies against the increasing national debt and President Obama's proposed healthcare reforms.
After dozens of Tea Party-affiliated candidates were elected to Congress in November 2010, the rallies trailed off. But despite the lower visibility, the Tea Party movement continues. And perhaps nowhere has the Tea Party message resonated so much as in South Carolina, where five of its six congressmen identify as "Tea Partiers".
Al Jazeera's Sam Bollier spoke with Mike Murphree, the chairman of the Charleston Tea Party, about Tea Partiers' political views, strategies, and the upcoming Republican primary.
Sam Bollier: What is the biggest area of concern to Tea Partiers?
Mike Murphree: The Tea Party, the acronym alone, is "Taxed Enough Already". We're the fiscal side. We're focused strictly on that. We do have our social issues - and it's true, a lot of people's hearts and souls [are] in abortion, and all those kinds of things that come into play.
But if we don't get our fiscal house in order, you complaining about abortion is not going to amount to a hill of beans - because we won't have a hill of beans to work from.
SB: How do Tea Partiers view the current field of Republican candidates?
MM: We've got people basically in everybody's campaign, participating and learning how to be involved in big-time presidential politics.
There is no real frontrunner. I got people in Ron Paul's camp, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum. I used to have people for Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain, but since they've bailed out they've gone to other camps.
Huntsman hadn't really grabbed a lot of people's interest ... I got milquetoast all over the place. I don't need any more.
What these folks are really looking for is, they've come to the realisation that you've taxed and spent us almost into bankruptcy.
SB: Of the five major Republican candidates, Texas congressman Ron Paul has called for the biggest cuts to government spending. Is there a lot of Tea Party support for Paul?
MM: There is, until we get to foreign policy. A lot of folks get concerned about foreign policy. They get nervous: how many years now has Iran been on the precipice of getting a nuclear weapon? A lot of people take that to heart.
SB: Are there many Tea Partiers who support [former Massachusetts governor Mitt] Romney?
MM: I think there are. I think there're some folks moving over there, especially after the big throw-down that they had over Bain Capital [two of Romney's rivals, Gingrich and Perry, have criticised Romney for laying off workers during Romney's time at Bain Capital, a private equity firm].
And the underlying thing about Bain Capital - that's capitalism, I'm sorry. You don't go to WalMart because it's inefficient and it costs more.
What bothers me is they're looking for equal outcomes. The Perry camp is talking about "vulture capitalism". My undergraduate work was in economics and business administration. The efficiencies that you are looking for, is you have a finite supply of capital, employees, and land. And those kinds of scarcities make you want to be efficient.
SB: Has the attack on Bain Capital hurt Perry and Gingrich among conservative Republicans?
MM: I think it has. One of Perry's supporters, one of the local statewide politicians [former South Carolina Republican Party chairman Barry Wynn, who said the rhetoric on Bain was "destructive"], bailed out and went to Romney's campaign.
SB: Is there anxiety that if conservatives don't unite behind a candidate, Romney will win the nomination?
MM: There's a lot of tension. There was an "ABR" group - "Anybody But Romney". But when it comes down to it, whoever's the nominee, they're going to have to formulate a message of strict conservative values and fiscal restraint that attracts the Tea Party folks. The whole idea here now is once you get to the nomination, we've got to beat Obama.
Because if we have four more years of Obama, we're going to have us a nice little European socialist utopia. And I'm just not all that enthusiastic about one of those.
SB: What if they don't - what if the Republican nominee moves to the centre once they are nominated?
"If we have four more years of Obama, we're going to have us a nice little European socialist utopia."
- Mike Murphree
MM: That's typically what they do anyway, all of them. But I highly recommend that they don't.
SB: What kind of leverage can the Tea Party use to keep Republicans on message?
MM: Last year we used to get their attention through Twitter, and Facebook, and all that kind of stuff ... We just lay it out: "You can't do what you've been doing. We can't afford it."
SB: What are the differences between a Tea Partier and an average conservative Republican?
MM: They're most probably one and the same. The difference comes in with what they call the establishment, the moderate Republican ... You've got to distinguish between your opponent and what he does different than you. Ronald Reagan - it was night and day between him and Jimmy Carter.
"You know exactly what you're getting when you vote for a liberal Democrat. When you vote for a moderate Republican, you ain't got a damn clue."
- Mike Murphree
SB: What's the biggest misconception about the Tea Party?
MM: That I'm a redneck, a homophobe ... that we're a bunch of loons. I think the misconceptions are working their way out. A lot's going to show up in the long run. In the short run, we're an easy target.
SB: Why do you say the Tea Party is an easy target?
MM: There's nobody in charge, there's nobody leading - which is still a wonderful idea. They just saw the grassroots people were uninitiated in the political process. Well, that's fine. I think a lot of people, especially in the national media outlets, [say]: "You people are just dumb. You don't understand the dynamics."
Not only do I understand the dynamics, I know I'm getting taxed the hell out of, my rights are being taken away, and you're more concerned about gay rights than that we're going broke.
SB: How does this lack of centralised leadership affect the Tea Party movement?
MM: I think it's an advantage, because that gives us an opportunity to focus on our region. You start from the smallest part, and you work your way up to the bigger part ... You've got to take baby steps. You can't eat this elephant in one bite. It took the progressive-liberal movement, to get where we are today, nearly 100 years. It's going to take the conservative movement that long to get [it] out.
SB: The federal debt has risen a lot under Obama, but it did under Bush as well. Why did the Tea Party only emerge in 2009 once Obama was in office?
MM: Well, they finally had enough. They finally hit that boiling point. I told a TV reporter one time, who asked me a question: "Aren't y'all just a wing of the Republican Party?"
I said, "No, ma'am. Something about these Republicans chap my lower extremities." They're all guilty.
And we're all guilty. You want that road through, want that sewer plant built, want that new school. It's a cold slap in the face. You have to come to the realisation that you can no longer afford the lifestyle that you've created, or the government that you've created. And that's your problem.
Follow Sam Bollier on Twitter: @SamBollier