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The political fringe finds a voice in Arkansas 

Republicans made huge gains in the November election so it was certain that conservative issues would gain more prominence. But there's conservative and there's, well, out there.

Bicycle paths are evil? Mind-altering chemicals are being put in water supplies, as one legislator suggested in pushing an anti-flouridation bill? There's a shadowy UN-backed effort to regulate land use in the Lake Maumelle watershed?

Even staunch conservative Republicans have shown trepidation about some segments of the right end of the spectrum. Several, for example, led the successful committee effort to kill an open-carry handgun bill by Rep. Denny Altes of Fort Smith, though they took pains to profess allegiance to the Second Amendment. Rep. Loy Mauch's anti-fluoridation bill failed. And some have distanced themselves from the loudest eruptions by Secure Arkansas, the group working to impose harsh limits on undocumented immigrants. Secure Arkansas blasted Republican leader Rep. John Burris. Though he supports their anti-immigrant legislation, Burris wasn't deemed sufficiently harsh in his criticism of Gov. Mike Beebe for opposing it.

The mainstream of the new Republican political force is no friend of illegal immigrants or abortion or just about anything proposed by President Barack Obama, particularly the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. But a new dimension of the debate is the certainty that a small contingent of even more dedicated right-wingers — from the Tea Party to Secure Arkansas and other groups — will be heard, on the strength of noise level alone, at every branch of government, from the city up to the Capitol. Impact and longevity remain to be seen.


The Movement

Early one Saturday morning in January, approximately 40 people gathered in a conference room at KARN studios in Little Rock to learn about becoming a part of conservative talk show host Dave Elswick's "Eye Team," a group of citizen-journalists that would help Elswick and KARN keep an eye on the government.

Kerry Baldwin, of the nominally non-partisan American Majority group, led the discussion. The group listened with rapt attention as they learned how to set up blogs, Facebook pages and Wikis. They asked questions in response to Republican strategist Clint Reed's briefing on the legislative process. "Can't they just introduce a bill to cut spending?" one woman asked. "Just get them to stop building bike trails," someone in the back of the room joked.

Many in the room were affiliated with Tea Party organizations and were genuinely excited about the chance to learn how to keep their local politicians accountable. But a conservative outlook wasn't the only thing this group shared. Overwhelmingly, those who left their beds early on a Saturday to learn how to blog about the government were white (save for one man) and, with the exception of conservative blogger Jason Tolbert and a couple of others, between the ages of 45 and 65.

They seemed to share a common feeling — a defensive and pervasive dread that things were not going the way they should, that times were changing too fast and something had to be done. Given the demographic represented, it seemed strange. After all, older, white, Christian Americans are, historically speaking, the least-oppressed group in the country's history. But their frustration, their feeling that they had been backed into a corner or that someone had taken their place in line, was real.

Statistics bear that out. Angie Maxwell is the Diane D. Blair Professor of Southern Studies at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. She, along with other faculty, recently conducted the first ever Blair Rockefeller Poll, a nation-wide survey of 3,400 adults aimed at understanding political behavior and attitudes. Maxwell says the results, which have not yet been released, tell us some interesting things — some expected, some counterintuitive — about who makes up the Tea Party.

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