SALT LAKE CITY — Sen. Mike Lee might be sounding less strident lately, but the head of the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition is still looking forward to hearing the Utah Republican's keynote address at the coalition's upcoming annual fundraiser.
"I'm not concerned about his weakening at all," said Steve Scheffler, president of the influential conservative coalition that's invited Lee to make his debut in Iowa Nov. 9 alongside former GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.
But Craig Robinson, co-founder and editor of the Iowa Republican website, said he's not sure Lee will choose to present himself to the party activists as "that quotable guy that sets the room on fire."
Instead, Robinson said, Lee may try to come across as a "serious politician," continuing to downplay his tea party ties as he did earlier this week at what was described as a conciliatory speech to a conservative Washington, D.C. think tank.
Utahns will get their chance to listen to Lee Saturday at a rally announced by the Utah Republican Party as an opportunity to hear about his fight against the Affordable Care Act that led to a federal government shutdown.
The Utah Democratic Party is urging a protest of Lee's "dangerous ideological posturing" at the rally, set for 11 a.m. at the West Riverfront Park in South Jordan.
Rally organizer Amelia Powers, of West Mountain in Utah County, said most Utahns appreciate that Lee "did what he said he would do, not something that would be popular in Washington and get praise from the media."
Asked about the rally, Lee's communications director Brian Phillips said in a statement that it "was organized by a number of Utahns who are frustrated by the poor and misleading coverage of Sen. Lee in the news media."
Phillips said Lee "is going to show up to say thank you."
Lee's appearance may be his first in Utah since polls found voters did not support his strategy to stop the health care law by refusing to include funding for it in the budget bill needed to keep the federal government running past Oct. 1.
Both Deseret News/KSL and Brigham Young University polls also showed Lee's favorability falling below 50 percent. Even though Lee won't be up for re-election for three years, there is already talk he'll be challenged from within the GOP.
National media has focused on the backlash Lee is facing in Utah. His win in 2010 after longtime Sen. Bob Bennett was defeated at the state GOP convention was seen as the then-new tea party's first major victory.
Lee did not mention the tea party in his speech Tuesday to the Heritage Foundation, instead urging all factions of the GOP to work together on an agenda that will help the party retake the White House in 2016.
His description of "What's Next for Conservatives" called for "sharpening more pencils than knives" and putting aside some of the same tactics he and other tea party supporters in Congress employed against Obamacare.
Lee was chosen to deliver the keynote speech at the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition's annual fundraising dinner because, Scheffler said, he doesn't "wilt under political pressure and is willing to stand up for constitutional principles."
Scheffler said he expects Lee, who is the evening's first speaker, to fire up the 1,000 or so attendees to get involved in the upcoming election cycle. Tickets to the event are $55 each, or $1,000 to meet and have a picture taken with Palin.
He said Lee is right that the different wings of the party need to work together, at least "when they can. But I don't believe in backing down because there was a defeat."
Iowa's GOP activists, which include many evangelical Christians and other social conservatives, admire Lee and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, for leading the battle against Obamacare, Scheffler said.
There's a frustration, he said, with GOP leaders who would rather "go along than have a fight based on principle. That's why the base has become so disgusted, because there is no willingness to take a stand when the going gets tough."
Scheffler, the Iowa GOP national committeeman, disagreed with Republicans who believe the party will suffer because of the 16-day government shutdown and the threat of the first-ever default on the nation's debt.
"I think that's just a lot of hype right now," Scheffler said. "I don't think Republicans can lay down and play dead."
Robinson, a former political director of the Iowa Republican Party, said while the more pragmatic members of the GOP aren't happy with Lee and the other tea party members of Congress, plenty in the party look up to them.
"They like these guys because they think Washington is broken and they're looking for someone to fix it," Robinson said. He suggested Lee might have offered some answers in his Heritage Foundation speech.
"We need to broaden our message," Robinson said of the GOP. "I think we fall in the trap of always talking about Obamacare."
He said while Lee's Iowa audience will "want to see the fighter they've been hearing about," the senator could tone down the tea party rhetoric and focus on issues.
"The choice he has to make here is does he want to be viewed as a serious politician," Robinson said, especially as he continues to elevate his national image by appearing in a state that attracts major political figures.
The late addition of Palin to the program may put more pressure on Lee to "compete with her in riling up the crowd," he said, adding that he felt bad that Lee no longer was the star of the show.
University of Iowa political science professor and active Republican Tim Hagle said Lee's message about making the GOP more inclusive would play well in Iowa, a place where people are used to seeing major political figures.
"It's not the 'red meat' thing that will get people fired up," Hagle said. "But it will get people nodding their heads."
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