SAN FRANCISCO -- They were dismissed as "Astroturf" political activists with funny hats and they had their revenge: The rise of America's rebellious Tea Party movement grabbed headlines and scores of congressional seats during the 2010 midterm elections.
On Saturday, as some pundits suggested their movement has peaked, Tea Party activists gathered across the San Francisco Bay Area and the nation to mark their movement's birthday -- the traditional national Tax Day -- and issue a loud election-year message: They're still fired up and they're not going away, even though the crowd they drew was meager by past standards.
Tea Party voters "will walk over hot coals to get to the polling places and make sure that Barack Obama is not re-elected," said Melanie Morgan, the KSFO "hot talk" radio personality.
After months of divisive GOP primaries, and with the party all but settled on Mitt Romney as its presidential nominee, the Tea Party is "ready for resurrection" in the 2012 presidential election, Morgan said Friday.
The Tea Party gatherings aimed to mark a renewed focus on the "tea" from which the movement's name derived -- which its members say stands for "taxed enough already."
Republican consultant Sal Russo, founder of the national Tea Party Express organization, which is credited with building the movement and helping to elect candidates such as GOP Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts, said this year will be a turning point.
"The movement has matured, which we always knew it would," Russo said Friday. At its beginnings in 2009, he said, only 10 percent to 15 percent of those who showed up to participate had been involved in politics.
"There wasn't a tactical or problem-solving approach," he said, or even a direct agenda to influence political action. Many Tea Party supporters angry at Washington and Sacramento, expressed no desire to plunge in.
That changed, he said, when organizations like Tea Party Express chose strategic races, including Brown's, in which to plant their flag and raised money nationally to expand their base and to get out a message of fiscal restraint, with lower taxes and government spending.
But Democratic pollster Ben Tulchin of San Francisco said that since 2010, the movement's populist anger has become "a fire out of control" that has "burned the GOP."
In the 2012 Republican presidential primaries, "they pulled the party to the right and made the candidates, including Romney, look outside the mainstream," he said. "It was a big turnoff to independents."
Since the movement's high-water mark in 2010, polling shows that the Tea Party's "negatives are quite high," Tulchin said. "They're seen as partisan, polarizing and extremist -- and they're very helpful at mobilizing Democrats."
Some Republicans are wondering whether conservative activists who leaned toward populist campaigns like those of former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich can get behind a moderate Republican like Romney, who appears likely to become the party's presidential nominee.
"I have no worries at all that people are going to rally behind Romney," said Sally Zelikovsky, who founded the Bay Area Patriots Tea Party group and organized Saturday's San Francisco gathering. "The main issue is still the economy, the government spending and size of budgets ... and people in the Tea Party are very, very focused on getting our financial house in order."
But top Democratic consultants who have seen the Tea Party movement's influence in key races say they are not worried.
"I don't think there's any doubt that the American people see these folks as lunatics," said Democratic strategist Sean Clegg, who has advised candidates including Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Attorney General Kamala Harris.
It's highly unlikely the activist group could repeat the windfall of seats won in the 2010 elections, Clegg said, but added, "My belief is that it's going to be, in some form, a permanent fact of life in the GOP."
(Contact Carla Marinucci, The San Francisco Chronicle's senior political writer, at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)