Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump has effectively split the conservative Tea Party movement, as his fiery campaign draws in followers of the group who had been expected to line up behind Ted Cruz, a more consistent champion of small government.
As the Republican race moves to the crucial battlegrounds of Ohio and Florida among three other states on Tuesday, Tea Party support promises to help Trump's campaign offset its relative lack of on-the-ground organization compared to Texas Senator Cruz, his closest rival nationally.
Having loyal Tea Party supporters could also help him fend off moves to block his nomination at the Republican National Convention in July if he falls short of the threshold of 1,237 delegates that would guarantee him the party's candidacy.
A Feb. 29 CNN poll had 56 percent of Tea Partiers favoring Trump compared to 16 percent for Cruz. A March 9 Quinnipiac University poll had Trump leading Cruz 48 percent to 40 percent among Tea Party voters in Florida, while Cruz led Trump with 38 percent to Trump's 33 percent in Ohio.
"Trump has tapped into Tea Party emotions, gaining the support of many of the most hacked off and motivated voters out there," said Republican strategist Ford O'Connell. "It was a brilliant move."