[cnn-photo-caption image= http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2010/images/01/10/art.steele0110.gi.jpg caption="Michael Steele met privately with 50 Tea Party leaders in Washington on Tuesday."]Washington (CNN) - An uneasy truce may have been reached between the Tea Party movement and the Republican Party after Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele spent nearly four hours Tuesday trying to calm the fears of Tea Party leaders who worry that the GOP is out to co-opt their grassroots energy ahead of the 2010 midterm elections.
Steele met with about 50 Tea Party leaders from grassroots organizations around the country in a lengthy bull session at the Capitol Hill Club, a cushy Republican meeting-spot located next to RNC headquarters.
The closed-door event, organized several weeks ago, was originally scheduled to last for one hour. But participants said the confab lasted well into the evening after the RNC chairman vowed to answer every question put forth by the activists who made the trip to Washington.
Participants said their primary goal was simply "to be heard" by the party establishment and to make clear to Steele that Tea Party activists want the national party to stay out of local races. Steele, they said, listened graciously throughout the meeting and promised to keep the lines of communication open.
"We believe in this meeting that we were heard," said Karin Hoffman of D.C. Works For Us, a Tea Party organization in South Florida. "It's the beginning of a relationship."
But Hoffman, who initiated the sit-down, cautioned that the Tea Party movement is an autonomous grassroots movement and will not "be absorbed into the RNC."
Indeed, when a group of participants were asked after the meeting if they consider themselves Republicans, nearly all shook their heads and boasted that they were "American citizens." Others said they knew of fellow Tea Party activists who refused to come to the meeting because they do not trust the Republican leadership.
Steele, however, won over many in the group when he pledged that the Republican Party will not to meddle in local races - especially GOP primaries featuring candidates backed by Tea Party activists. At one point in the meeting, the divisive Senate primary battle in Florida between Marco Rubio and Charlie Crist was mentioned. The chairman said the role of the national party is to back whoever becomes the Republican nominee.
"He is leaving it up to the people, and that's what we want," said Cheryl Couture, a member of the 9.12 Project from Naples, Florida. "We don't want people interfering with the process, because that's not American."
Greg Fettig of Noblesville, Indiana - the president of "Hoosier Patriots" - said Steele agreed with those in the meeting who griped that the Republican Party had abandoned its principles. "He admitted that Republicans from 1994, from that point until today, had strayed away from their Republican values," Fettig said.
Fettig said he asked the chairman if national Republicans had recruited former Sen. Dan Coats into the Indiana Senate race, which already featured several Republican candidates before Coats declared his candidacy earlier this month. Steele, he said, assured him that was not the case. Fettig said Tea Party activists in Indiana are "adamantly against" Coats' candidacy.
Representatives from the National Republican Congressional Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee - two party organizations that have backed their chosen Republican candidates in contested primaries - did not attend Tuesday's meeting.
Steele released a statement after the event thanking the members of the Tea Party movement who organized the meeting.
"We share a common purpose in stopping President Obama's agenda and standing up for principles such as smaller government, lower taxes, free enterprise, and the Constitution," Steele said. "Moving into the midterm elections this fall, I look forward to continuing to build on this discussion and to work to elect officials who will fight to protect the principles which they and a majority of Americans support."