Manchester, New Hampshire (CNN) – Mere hours before this cycle's first presidential debate in New Hampshire, some key figures in the tea party movement had a message for any Republican presidential hopeful: if he or she thinks they can win the GOP nomination without Tea Party support – think again.
That's the declaration from the Tea Party Express on Monday ahead of the debate, in Manchester, co-sponsored by CNN, WMUR and The New Hampshire Union Leader.
Amy Kremer, the group's chairman, and Sal Russo, its chief strategist, emphatically stated that the road to the GOP nomination winds through tea party territory.
"Our view is that a Republican nominee can't be successful without strong tea party support," Russo said adding, "The tea party movement has brought all the vitality and passion into politics."
Nodding in agreement, Kremer took the sentiment one step further - laying down the political gauntlet to the Republican Party.
"The important thing to remember is: we are going to give the GOP a candidate. We're not just going to accept what the GOP has handed us all these years," Kremer said.
To that end, the two influential tea party figures announced it has secured the support of over 100 local tea party and other conservative groups – in all 50 states – for the first and only tea party debate. That debate is set for September 12, 2011 in Tampa, Florida and is co-sponsored by CNN.
Kremer explained the importance of securing such a blanket of support.
"The real strength of the movement is on the local level," she said. "We're going to play a big role in presidential politics in 2012. So it's important to have their voices heard."
"The strength of the movement is being represented because groups from all 50 states are going to be participating," Russo added.
The tea party movement was instrumental in helping Republicans take back the U.S. House in the 2010 midterm elections. And the movement's stamp of approval helped many candidates earn two crucial elements necessary for electoral victory: money and exposure.
And yet the tea party endorsement can also be the political kiss of death. High profile candidates from the last cycle – such as Senate hopefuls Christine O'Donnell of Delaware, Alaska's Joe Miller and Nevada's Sharron Angle – saw their electoral hopes fall despite strong tea party support.
But Russo bristled at any notion that tea party backing can hurt a candidate's chances going forward.
"I would say that's so silly it's difficult to fathom a good response to it," Russo said.
"When the tea party movement started in February of 2009 everybody thought that the Republicans were going to lose seats in the Senate, maybe hold their own in the House, not make many gains in the states. Instead, we had a historic election. The only thing that changed in the dynamic of American politics is the emergence of the tea party movement. Do you win every election? Of course not, you don't win them all. But it was a major achievement for the tea party movement in 2010."
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