The Republican presidential race has barely begun, and the tea party's impact is already evident.
First sign was the re-emergence of the "birther" issue, the unproven allegation that Barack Obama is an illegal president born in Kenya, not Hawaii. Polls show tea party activists are the Republicans most likely to believe that.
Then, a national poll and one in New Hampshire showed billionaire developer turned television reality show host Donald Trump soaring into a tie for second place after latching onto that issue. Both surveys showed him closely behind the leader, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
In addition, last month's gathering of social conservatives in Iowa, which attracted several likely candidates, gave the best reception to the founder of the House Tea Party Caucus, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota.
Bachmann showed grass-roots support elsewhere and some fund-raising potential, indicating she may not only run but could become a more significant player than initially imagined.
Meanwhile, freshman House Republicans elected with tea party support were flexing their muscles in Congress, helping to force a bigger initial cut in federal spending than GOP leaders initially proposed.
They also pressured Republican leaders into refusing to support, without far bigger cuts, the pending measure raising the legal debt ceiling, despite House Speaker John Boehner's earlier warning that failure to do so "would be a financial disaster."
In the end, Obama's birthplace is unlikely to be a decisive issue. The odds are against either Bachmann or Trump actually winning the nomination. But last year's Republican primaries and this year's initial maneuvering shows their candidacies may help conservative GOP primary and caucus voters force potential nominees to the right of independents, who decide presidential elections.
That's very likely in Iowa, which is holding a party-sanctioned straw poll in August and where lead-off caucuses now are scheduled for February. Latest polling indicates it also could happen in more moderate New Hampshire, especially with a large field.
Trump, once considered a moderate Republican, drew 21 percent of GOP primary voters when included in a survey by a respected Democratic polling firm, Public Policy Polling. Similarly, a national NBC-Wall Street Journal poll showed Trump tied former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee for second. The polls came after Trump drew nationwide attention for questioning Obama's place of birth.
He was candid Sunday in explaining his motivation when Candy Crowley asked on CNN's State of the Union if this wasn't "a losing issue" for him.
"Excuse me," Trump interjected, "55 percent of the Republicans believe in this issue, and 70 percent think that there's at least a good chance he wasn't born in this country. ...I don't think it's a losing issue."
But with Romney and other mainstream candidates keeping a lower profile, Trump's bid for attention is just one interesting early development. Another is the rise of Bachmann, who seems to be filling the void created by Sarah Palin's decision to pass up early GOP candidate events.
On paper, Palin would seem to be a strong candidate in Iowa, where religious conservatives make up a significant portion of the caucus attendance. But Bachmann's fervent reaction at last month's conservative conference, convened by Iowa Rep. Steve King, showed the Iowa native also may be a good fit for them.
Accounts said she received a far more enthusiastic response than other potential candidates, including Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and attracted more such crowds in Iowa this week.
Bachmann, who raised $2.2 million in the first quarter compared with $1.9 million by Romney, said she'll decide by June whether to run but said the Aug. 13 straw poll "is key for us."
Four years ago, Huckabee's strong second-place showing to the heavily financed Romney foreshadowed his unexpected caucus victory.
Romney seems inclined to downplay Iowa in hopes of making his mark in New Hampshire. But some mainstream Republicans who see him as the GOP's strongest candidate fear Trump's poll showing suggests a fervent conservative rival could cripple the former Massachusetts governor in his most essential state.
Still, it's early. History advises that presidential nominating contests often produce surprises, especially in the challenging party.