The tea party movement was born in anger over the recession and the Obama administration's bailouts, and built largely on a platform of lower taxes and smaller government. But some of its candidates are getting tripped up on social issues.
In New York, Carl Paladino, the tea party-backed Republican candidate for governor, caused a furor among Democrats when he said over the weekend that children shouldn't be "brainwashed" into thinking homosexuality is acceptable.
In Colorado, GOP Senate nominee Ken Buck has tried to deflect questions about his stance against abortion rights. In Delaware, Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell has come under fire over the conservative religious views she espoused as a TV commentator, including preaching against the evils of masturbation.
And in Nevada, Senate candidate Sharron Angle, a Southern Baptist, has called herself a faith-based politician. She opposes abortion in all circumstances, including rape and incest, and doesn't believe the Constitution requires the separation of church and state. Her opponent, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, seeks to portray her as outside mainstream America.
One by one, tea party challengers have veered away from the issues of taxes and spending _ or in some cases were pushed off message, either by the media or by the Democrats, who have tried to portray the insurgents not as populist alternatives to the mainstream GOP but as Republican regulars.
"It is clear that the Democrats and many of their allies in the media will attack the Republicans for being 'too extreme,'" William Mayer, an associate professor of political science at Northeastern University, wrote in a position paper this month.
Alan Abramowitz, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta, said his research shows tea party activists are overwhelmingly conservative Republicans. Rather than an outside alternative to the GOP, he said, the tea party is a movement from within the Republican Party's most active members.
"My feeling has been that social issues were always an important component of the tea party movement all along," Abramowitz said.
He said candidates have been questioned on their social views by reporters and by Democrats more now that they emerged as GOP nominees: "There's more attention to it now, now that they are actually running their general election campaigns."
Some tea party candidates are trying to moderate their social views or deflect attention from them back to the economy.
In Denver, Buck is challenging first-term Sen. Michael Bennet and opposes abortion even in cases of rape and incest. He endorsed a state constitutional amendment that would give fetuses constitutional rights, then withdrew his support after doctors and lawyers pointed out it would also ban some types of fertility treatments and emergency contraception.
"Democrats see this as an opportunity to discredit Ken Buck, but I think most people are smart enough to know one person isn't going to be able to do away with Roe v. Wade," said Bobbie Chiles, president of the South Platte Republican Women's Club.
In Kentucky, tea party Republican Rand Paul, a candidate for Senate, opposes abortion, same-sex marriage and a proposed mosque near ground zero in New York City. But he doesn't talk about it much.
"I say the top three issues of the tea party movement are the debt, the debt and the debt," Paul said in a recent campaign stop to a group dedicated to smaller government.
But in May, just hours after the political novice won a landslide primary victory, he took heat for a rambling interview in which he expressed misgivings about the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and appeared to suggest that businesses be allowed to deny service to blacks without fear of federal interference.
Paul scrambled for damage control, issuing a statement saying, "I believe we should work to end all racism in American society and staunchly defend the inherent rights of every person."
In Alaska, tea party candidate Joe Miller says he is "unequivocally pro-life," and also opposes hate crime laws as violations of free-speech and equal protection under the Constitution.
In New York, Paladino spent Monday's Columbus Day Parade, a staple for politicians seeking votes in New York City, fending off a stream of criticism from Democrats for his comments the night before to a group of Orthodox Jewish leaders.
"That's not how God created us," Paladino said Sunday of homosexuality, "and that's not the example that we should be showing our children."
He added that children who later in life choose to marry people of the opposite sex and raise families would be "much better off and much more successful."
"I don't want them to be brainwashed into thinking that homosexuality is an equally valid and successful option," he said.
Paladino's Democratic opponent for governor, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, called Paladino's comments "reckless and divisive ... (the) worst cynical politics," especially since they come as New York City police investigate reports that three men were tortured in a night of anti-gay bias in the Bronx.
"It is repugnant to the concept of what New York is," Cuomo said Monday at the parade. "We celebrate our diversity."
State Sen. Thomas Duane, an openly gay Democrat, said he was "enraged" by Paladino's "despicable rhetoric, which does cause people to hate themselves and commit suicide."
Paladino, who trails Cuomo by double digits in the polls, insisted his opposition to gay marriage and "brainwashing" in schools about gay life is a view held by millions of New Yorkers.
"I unequivocally support gay rights, unequivocally," Paladino said during the parade. He noted that he has a gay nephew who works for his campaign.
"The one thing that I don't (support) is marriage. I'm a Catholic," Paladino said. "I believe in the Catholic position on it and if Andrew doesn't like it, he should go see a priest."
Cuomo is also Roman Catholic.
Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Kristen Wyatt in Denver; Becky Bohrer in Juneau, Alaska, and Marcus Franklin in New York City.