One of the paradoxes of being a foreign reporter in smalltown America is that within any one day, you will hear people insist that they stand at the centre of global affairs and simultaneously act as though they reside at the very fringes of international interest. As Americans, they feel their country stands as a beacon to the outside world - a showcase for freedom, liberty, democracy and material comfort. As inhabitants of smalltown America, they feel marginalised from the national narrative and isolated from the rest of the world. Within the span of a single conversation you will be told that America is the best country on earth and be asked why you - or indeed anyone - would come to their particular town.
So it was last week in Leitchfield, a small town in central Kentucky. South-east of Louisville and south-west of Lexington, its 6,000 residents live between Nolin and Rough River lakes on the way to nowhere in particular. Leitchfield has known better days, but few here can remember when. Unemployment, long in double digits, has now reached 16%. One in five lives below the poverty line and the median family income is less than two-thirds that of the rest of the nation. Last year Republican presidential hopeful John McCain took the county handily, with 67% of the vote.
On Monday night a young woman working at a local pharmacy first giggled at my accent and then asked what business I could possibly have in Leitchfield. When I asked her what young people do for kicks in a place that doesn't serve alcohol, she shrugged: "Some of them take drugs and have sex. I watch videos with my sister." Just a few a minutes later I was at a town hall event where Republican Senate hopeful Rand Paul lamented the impending demise of America's global supremacy.
"We as a country could go into great decline and slip into the second tier of nations if we don't change our ways," he said. "You cannot just continue to spend beyond your means. We've been doing that for a generation."
Paul, the son of Congressman Ron Paul who attracted a huge libertarian following during the last year's presidential elections, is the insurgent candidate in May's Republican Kentucky primary. Virtually unknown when he joined the race against establishment candidate, Trey Grayson, a poll last month put Rand Paul narrowly in the lead. "2010 will be the year of the outsider," he says. "Someone who is not a politician, like myself, has a really good chance. A better chance than any other year."
He could be right. Paul is riding the wave of the Tea party movement that emerged from the anti-tax protests earlier this year. His bid is being replicated in Republican primaries throughout the country. In Arizona, McCain could be in a tight race against anti-immigration zealot JD Hayworth. Polls show McCain, a four-term senator, in a statistical dead heat - all the more amazing given that Hayworth has yet to announce his candidacy. At the beginning of this year the moderate Florida governor, Charlie Crist, led unknown ultra-conservative Marco Rubio 57-4. By last month his lead had slimmed to just 47-37. Other hard-right challenges are brewing from New Hampshire down.
There is some partisan symmetry in this. While Obama launched a electoral campaign that aspired to become a movement, the opposition has created a movement that is attempting to gain electoral expression. While members of the former found their focus via a candidate, the latter have no champion. It's not even clear they are looking for one.
Whether they will upset or revive the Republican party has yet to be seen. What is clear is that they are a force to be reckoned with. A recent Rasmussen poll revealed that if the Tea party were an actual party it would eclipse the Republicans. In a hypothetical, three-way race, Democrats received 36% of the vote, the non-existent Tea party got 23% and Republicans got just 18%; a further 22% were undecided. The poll also showed that 73% of Republican voters think their leaders are out of touch with the party base. In downtown Little Rock last weekend, the heirs to the protests held a rally of several hundred with standing room only - all the Republican Senate candidates were there.
Gradually a few things about the people in this movement are becoming clear. First, they are anxious to emphasise their economic conservatism. Their mantra is small government, their obsession the national debt. In more than an hour neither Paul nor any of the 35 audience members mentioned abortion, gay marriage, stem cell research, creationism or religion in schools. "Remember when one of Clinton's aides said 'It's the economy, stupid'?" Rand Paul asked me afterwards. "It still is the economy ... I'm not running for preacher. I'm running for office." That does not mean they are not socially conservative. It may be that social conservatives have such a stranglehold on the Republican party that social issues no longer have traction there.
Second, they are almost exclusively white. In a town such as Leitchfield, which is 97% white, in a state such as Kentucky, which is 90% white, that is not really a problem. But in places such as Arizona, Florida, New Mexico or Nevada - key swing states where non-whites are more than a third - it virtually ensures defeat.
That does not make them racist. But they have been a magnet for some racists, whose crude rhetoric and anti-Obama hysteria has made their lack of diversity a liability. On Thursday Paul's spokesman, Christopher Hightower, resigned after it was discovered that a picture of lynching, posted close to Martin Luther King Day and containing the message "Happy Nigger Day", had been on his Myspace page for almost two years.
Third, their success in a general election is linked to Obama's failure. Their achievement is to have organised their rage into a viable force within the Republican party. How they fare beyond those boundaries is another matter. At present both Paul and Greyson would lose to either of the leading Kentucky Democrats. The more sustained difference the administration makes to peoples' lives, the less this anger makes sense.
Finally, the movement's standard bearers seem keen to distance themselves from the more vocal, eccentric elements with which they have been associated. Asked whether he thought Obama was a Muslim and born in the US, Paul said he didn't know but: "Those are things that I would never bring up in a speech and don't have a belief that coincides with people who brought those up as issues." The trouble is, while they may find the birthers embarrassing, their challenge is not feasible without them.
"I call it the national open mic movement," jokes Paul. "It's kind of good in a way. Some people were tired of not being able to speak their piece. But I don't think it has a cohesion yet. It's yet to be seen whether it can transform itself." That will depend, in no small part, on who grabs the mic, who can pull the plug and whether Obama can attract more with his deeds than they can with their screeds.