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Scott McInnis was late to the tea party, says group spokeswoman

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In a blog yesterday, Scott McInnis spokesman Sean Duffy shrugged off suggestions that his candidate was masquerading as having won support from tea party groups -- but he added that McInnis was actively courting members of such organizations.

That wasn't always true, says Lesley Hollywood, a spokeswoman for the Tea Party of Northern Colorado. Back in November, her outfit sponsored a well-attended political forum in Loveland. Plenty of candidates showed up to speak, but not McInnis, who didn't even respond to her invitation to participate until afterward, "when he found out what a success it was."

Hollywood, a mother of two daughters age ten and under, hesitates to call herself the leader of the Northern Colorado tea party. "That's not the way our tea party is set up," she says. "We don't have an actual board of directors. We have a core group that comes together and acts like a think tank. We all work together to provide one strong voice."

In the past, Hollywood hadn't been deeply involved in politics. But in recent years, she says, "I've become increasingly more alarmed about what's happening in this country. I feel like progressives have taken over much of our government -- and much of the Republican party. I'm concerned for the future of our country. I don't want that for my children. I feel they deserve to grow up with this country supporting the values of when it was founded."

She found a way to channel these feelings when she attended "a tax-day tea party in Denver," she says. "I was a little unsure of what I was going to find down there. I've never really been an activist, so I was a little out of my element. But when I started talking to people, I realized that this was something really big we need to continue."

In the months since then, the size of the Northern Colorado tea party has grown considerably. "We have over a thousand members right now, and we're growing by about five members a day," Hollywood says. "It's really beginning to pick up speed, and we haven't actually started recruiting yet. That's happening after the first of the year."

An indication of the tea party's increasing clout was the aforementioned forum, dubbed Candidate Search 2010. Hollywood was in charge of contacting the various office hopefuls. "We invited both Democrats and Republicans," she says. "It wasn't a debate, just a forum where we could ask some tough questions and get some answers -- and ten candidates showed up."

The Democrats were all no-shows for the event -- and so were McInnis and Senate candidate Jane Norton. But while Norton reps confirmed that their candidate wouldn't be attending, no one from McInnis' camp did likewise.

No wonder a Fox News interview in which host Neil Cavuto characterized McInnis as the tea party candidate of choice stuck in Hollywood's craw.

"He hadn't done anything to reach out to these groups, or allow us to reach out to him," she says. "I know, because I contacted everyone multiple times. So seeing that, it was a little bit personal for me."

At this point, ignoring the tea party is easier said than done for McInnis or any other Republican. Hollywood estimates that 600 people came to the forum, and various events targeting Representative Betsy Markey have drawn impressive throngs. She feels the size of these protests had a lot to do with Markey's decision to vote "no" on the House's healthcare bill.

"She had a choice," Hollywood said. "She could outrage her base or outrage us -- and she chose to outrage her base. That in itself is the beginning of a victory. It shows that we're starting to have some pull."

Dan Maes, who portrays himself as the only conservative left in the gubernatorial race, would love for the tea party to put its people-power at his disposal. But he doesn't have the group's official backing quite yet.

"I wouldn't say we've endorsed Dan Maes, but we've come out in support of him for one reason -- to keep him in the race until we caucus in March," Hollywood explains. "That's when the people will truly endorse a candidate -- and if Scott McInnis is the only candidate, then we don't have a choice."

She adds that if the situation was reversed, "we would do the same thing for Scott McInnis."

That means the window of opportunity for McInnis isn't closed yet. But neither is it wide open. He's got some making up to do.

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