By CARL STRAUMSHEIM
TAMPA, Fla.—Maryland tea party supporters will try to use this week's Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., to shift the focus away from more divisive social issues to their message of fiscal responsibility, conservative leaders said.
But both locally and nationally, social issues continue to compete for the spotlight with the election's top issue: the economy.
At the state level, Maryland tea party groups said they are focusing their efforts on defeating several social issue referendums on the Nov. 6 ballot, including legalizing same-sex marriage and allowing some undocumented immigrants to pay in-state college tuition. On a national level, Rep. Todd Akin, the Republican candidate for Senate in Missouri, reignited the abortion debate with his comments about "legitimate rape."
The Maryland Republican Party is represented at the convention by 72 official delegates and alternates. Among them are party officials and members of the House of Delegates and Senate, but also conservative activists on the state's political scene.
"It's a pretty broad mix of people. The thing they have in common is that they are center-right folks," Delegate Nicholaus Kipke, a Pasadena Republican, said about the Maryland delegation. "There really is no such thing as carrying a tea party membership card."
Members of the Maryland delegation said they intend to show a unified front in Tampa, despite some ideological distance between mainstream Republicans and those who identify with the tea party movement. A recent College of William and Mary report placed the tea party movement on the far right on a liberal-conservative scale.
Todd Eberly, an assistant professor of political science and public policy at St. Mary's College of Maryland, said the rise of the tea party movement has been fueled by current or former Republicans who have grown frustrated with the party.
"It speaks to the larger Republican Party, the growing pressure between its fiscal conservatives and social conservatives," Eberly said. "Republicans—to win nationally—need to have both camps come home and vote for them. At the moment what's helping them is the overriding concern of the economy."
Charles Lollar, a tea party Republican, said the delegation is fired up about fiscal issues. Maryland's tea party supporters are less likely to clash with their moderate state colleagues than with their national counterparts, he said.
"I would call it a focus gap," Lollar said. "You'll find conservatives that are so concerned about social issues that they'll take their foot off what's important. Conservatives should be concerned about the fundamentals: Making sure we have a balanced budget and making sure everyone has the opportunity to live within their own means ... The convention will allow this kind of conversation to happen."
Other delegates are less optimistic about their chances to influence policy. Andrew Langer, the president of the Institute for Liberty, a small business advocacy group, said he hoped the convention will serve as a forum for conservatives to exchange ideas on how to limit the cost and size of government and tackle rising health care costs.
"The tea party movement's top issues haven't changed," said Langer, who identifies with the tea party. "Those philosophies hold true for tea party activists here in Maryland."
Langer, who will be attending his fourth convention, said he will also be speaking at two tea party events in Tampa during the convention.
Among conservatives not attending the convention, strengthening the GOP as a minority party in Maryland sits at the top of the agenda.
"I don't want to chase the governor's election. I don't want to chase the Senate election," said Sam Hale, founder of the Maryland Society of Patriots. "We need to rebuild the party. What I'm driving for right now is preparing us for 2014."
A stronger Republican Party would have more power to block "radical legislation" like the social issue referendums on the ballot, Hale said.
Tea party supporters also will spend time in Tampa deciding whether or not to throw their full support behind the Republican ticket, Lollar said.
"The appointment of (presumptive vice presidential nominee Paul) Ryan raises some eyebrows," Lollar said, pointing to Ryan's seven terms in the House of Representatives and the overall ticket's lack of military experience. But the pick does excite the base, he added.
"With Ryan entering the ticket, we have something we can work with," Lollar said. "But am I overly impressed? Am I wowed? Does my jaw drop down to no end? Not exactly."