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Sarah Palin thinks that if the Republican Party doesn’t totally embrace the Tea Party movement, it might as well consider itself “through” as an organizing entity.

What Palin and those who agree with her must recognize is that if the Tea Party doesn’t do a better job of rejecting candidates who can win a primary but not the general election, it will not be as big a force as it likes to think it is.

It’s nonsense when purists on the left or right say they would rather lose on principle in order to maintain their purity. That’s stupid. If your party is out of power, you can’t drive legislation. And when you’re in the minority, all you’re doing is shouting and not leading.

Democrats and Republicans are both studying the electoral map and trying to figure out what races to focus on, and how they can gain a critical edge in the final days leading up to the November 2 midterm elections. GOP prognosticators expect that they will end up with 48 or 49 added seats in the House, giving them control of that chamber.

If that’s the case, the GOP elites will probably look at the Tea Party faithful and say, “If you hadn’t given us Sharron Angle, Christine O’Donnell, Linda McMahon, Ron Johnson and Rand Paul, we would have taken down the Democrats and taken over the U.S. Senate.”

Of course, this is presuming that those candidates can’t dispatch Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in Nevada, Chris Coons in Delaware, state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal in Connecticut, Russ Feingold in Wisconsin and Jack Conway in Kentucky.

A study of the polls as of late reveals that every single one of those races, other than O’Donnell’s, is neck-and-neck, and they will all boil down to aggressive get-out-the vote drives on both sides.

Johnson has been a pretty moderate voice throughout the campaign and was embraced by the Tea Party faithful after he gave a stinging rebuke of the health-care bill passed by Congress and signed into law.

But when you look at some of the loopy and outlandish comments made by Angle, O’Donnell, McMahon and Paul, it is clear that in order to succeed, you must get beyond what it takes to win in a primary and appeal to a broader audience for the general election.

Just ask Ned Lamont. He won the Democratic primary for Senate in Connecticut in 2006 because the progressive/liberal community despised Sen. Joe Lieberman’s support for the war in Iraq and attacked him with everything they had. Lamont was unable to topple Lieberman in the general election even though he had the progressives’ endorsement and the Democratic party line on the ballot.

Angle, O’Donnell, McMahon and Paul have all been dogged by some pretty outrageous comments, angering Republican operatives while providing fodder for their liberal critics:

  • If it weren’t for Reid’s porous approval rating in Nevada, he would be dusting Angle, with her constant running away from the media and her allusion to an armed revolt if the “tyrannical (federal) government” isn’t reined in.
  • McMahon, who help build the World Wresting Entertainment behemoth with her husband, Vince, has had to battle criticism about the violence in the sport, rampant drug use and its portrayal of women. Although the millions she has poured into the campaign have made it easier for the GOP to stomach her involvement in the race, going back and forth on the minimum wage was a major rookie mistake. Now she’s trying to close the deal against a candidate who has major issues with telling the truth about his military record.
  • Rand Paul and his chop-the-federal-government view is music to the ears of the Tea Party, but when he said he disagreed with key parts of the Civil Rights Act, he went from a potentially serious candidate to the absurd. He quickly backtracked after MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow used his own words to show him to be clueless, and he has continued to lead in the race, albeit it by a small margin. But such views are troubling for a party that has virtually no relationship with the African-American community.
  • And what can we say about O’Donnell, who couldn’t get right where she graduated from and when; who has touted herself as a constitutional scholar after going on a seven-day fellowship organized by a conservative foundation; and who made flat-out weird statements on Bill Maher’s old show, “Politically Incorrect,” about evolution and witchcraft.

These candidates may have caught the fancy of the hard-core elements during the primaries, which are known to be all about the fringe, but that doesn’t mean they have what it takes to win over the voters in a general campaign.

Were it not for the widespread total disgust at the nation’s economic condition, it’s safe to say voters wouldn’t tolerate these candidates’ burn-the-barn-down rhetoric. But if the Tea Party wants to be a true movement, one with legs, it is going to have to think practically and with a goal in mind: winning.

Yes, it has provided a desperate emotional lift for the Republican Party and a grass-roots base to build from, but at the end of the day, if you can’t push the ball into the end zone and put the seat in the “R” column, all you’ve done is gotten close.

And in politics, close ain’t good enough. It’s about winning