Trouble at the top – but Tea Party just rolls on

Poll reveals growing support among Republican voters despite string of lurid allegations

The swell of support for the Tea Party movement continues to grow in the United States according to a new poll released yesterday even as some of its standard-bearers show themselves adept at attracting attention that in normal times would spell political poison more than gold.

A Wall Street Journal-NBC survey suggests that 71 per cent of Republican voters now support the Tea Party or say that they hope candidates running with express backing from it do well in congressional elections set for 2 November. A third of those voting in November will consider themselves supporters of the Tea Party, which advocates small government, deficit-elimination and low taxes.

At the same time, the movement's newest star, Christine O'Donnell, the surprise Republican candidate for the US Senate in Delaware, was again in damage limitation mode last night after reports that she exaggerated her educational achievements in online profiles. Among her claims: that she studied at Oxford University.

The insurgent Republican candidate for governor in New York, Carl Paladino, who promises to clean house in Albany, the state capital, was hit by revelations that some of his closest aides have had assorted run-ins with the law. A chauffeur, according to the New York Times, served jail time and a top adviser has been charged with stealing $1m (£860,000) from last year's re-election campaign of New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg. Even Sarah Palin, the former Governor of Alaska and darling of the Tea Party, has had a rough week after reports that she was booed by the studio audience when she showed up to watch her daughter Bristol compete in the popular "Dancing With the Stars" on ABC. By last night it was the judges who were attracting the scorn of the audience. Yet most of the country had been ready to believe that Ms Palin had been the target.

As for Ms O'Donnell's fudged educational record, her profile on LinkedIn, the professional network site, until recently said she had studied "Post Modernism in the New Millennium" at the University of Oxford. She did study with the Phoenix Institute which had rented space from Oxford. So presumably, she did at least visit the city.

That the Tea Party veers between the deadly sincere and the unquestionably whacky – you may recall that Ms O'Donnell's difficulties last week had to do with her past dabbling in witchcraft and her repudiation also of the theory of evolution – gives the Republican leadership both cheer and chills.

Without question, the movement is generating all important grass-roots enthusiasm just five weeks away from the congressional elections. However, the conservative nature of the movement is shifting the party as a whole to the right. And when voting day comes, it is distinctly possible that independents who might have defected from Democrats to Republicans could have second thoughts.

It may also turn out that the craziness of a few Tea Party-backed candidates could do for the Democrats what Barack Obama and other leaders of the party have so far failed to do: impart on them a sense of urgency to get out and vote on 2 November also.

A touch of otherness is, of course, precisely the quality that some Tea Party followers want in their candidates. That was roughly the response, for example, of Mr Paladino's campaign manager, Michael Caputo, when tackled about the past legal histories of some of his boss's inner-circle. "This is a campaign of junkyard dogs, not pedigreed poodles," he said.