WHEN Stacy Mott, a stay-at-home mother of three children, started writing a blog after the election of President Barack Obama last year, she had no involvement in politics and simply wanted to vent her frustration at financial bailouts, healthcare reform and legislation to combat climate change.
The former marketing executive at Toys R Us quickly found she was not alone. One year on, her blog, Smart Girl Politics, is an organisation with 23,000 members and co-ordinators in almost every state.
"There are a huge amount(number) of people out there who are angry at Obama and big government but feel the Republican Party is not representing them," said Rebecca Wales, who left the party's campaign team to become Smart Girl's communications director. "What we are seeing is an outpouring of conservative values."
In recent months, the US has witnessed an astonishing growth in similar right-wing grassroots organisations across the country, loosely grouped under the label Tea party.
Although it has no leader, no clear origins and a vague objective of "taking back America", it is emerging as a powerful force in next year's congressional elections.
A poll last week found that if it were a party, the movement's candidates would be more popular than the Republicans. "DUMP THE RINOS !!"
According to the Rasmussen survey, Democrats have 36 per cent of the vote, the Tea party 23 per cent and Republicans 18 per cent.
Yet the first mention of the movement came only in February, when a TV reporter named Rick Santelli launched a tirade against the government's bailout of mortgage companies. His report, which ended up on YouTube, called for a tea party in homage to the 1773 protest in which British tea was emptied into Boston harbour, helping to spark the American revolution. Others say the name stands for "Taxed Enough Already".
Whatever its origins, the Tea party first showed its teeth with a rally in Washington in September whose size and venom took everyone by surprise. Tens of thousands of angry protesters massed near Capitol Hill to denounce Obama's healthcare and spending plans, chanting, "Enough, enough". Then, last month, Tea party supporters showed the electoral damage they could wreak by backing their own right-wing candidate rather than the moderate Republican in a congressional election in New York state. The resulting split led to a Democrat victory.
Tea party activists now plan to back conservative candidates in next autumn's mid-term elections. They believe their grassroots support will enable them to raise millions of dollars, drawing on the Obama campaign's success in using the internet.
FreedomWorks, a Washington-based advocacy group that has helped to organise Tea party protests and claims 500,000 registered members, says it will start mobilising its support base this month.
"We're looking at the potential of raising small cheques from a vast number of donors, just as Obama did," said Matt Kibbe, the group's president. "I happen to think the Tea party movement could make even the Obama machine look obsolete."
Smart Girl Politics is also among the groups planning to move from selling coffee mugs, T-shirts and mouse mats to forming a political action committee to raise money for candidates.
"We're not trying to be against the Republicans or start a third party," said Wales. "We want to work with them in identifying conservative candidates."
Although Republicans try to play down the Tea party as disparate and divided, their leaders have been placed in a quandary - ditch establishment candidates for the Tea party's choice and lose independent votes, or risk splitting the vote in a repeat of New York.
The division is cheering Democrats at a time when Obama's poll ratings have fallen to 47 per cent, the lowest of any president in his first year of office.
Tim Kaine, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said the conservative movement was "savaging" the Republicans.
The Tea party is now preparing for its first national convention in February. The headline speaker will be Sarah Palin, poster girl of the American Right, whose memoir is topping bestseller lists. Palin is not the only female firebrand embraced by the Tea party people. "We also like Liz Cheney (the daughter of former vice-president Dick Cheney) and Michele Bachmann," said Wales.
Bachmann, 53, arrived in congress two years ago from Minnesota, and has captured headlines with her denunciations of multiculturalism, arguing that "not all cultures are equal", her opposition to same-sex marriage and her claims that many scientists reject the theory of evolution.