MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) -- It's too early to say the tea party's over.
But with a Senate majority in reach, the Republican Party and its allies are using campaign cash, positions of influence and other levers of power to defuse what they consider challenges by weak conservative candidates before the 2014 midterm elections and the 2016 presidential race. The party is cherry picking other candidates, including some who rode the tea party wave to a House majority in 2010. Some of those lawmakers are getting boosts from the very establishment the class vowed to upend.
It all adds up to an expensive and sweeping effort by national and state Republicans to blur the dividing line between factions that many believe cost the GOP the Senate majority and prolonged the 2012 presidential nomination fight. "We can't expect to win if we are fighting each other all the time," said Matt Borges, chairman of the Ohio Republican Party.
This year, Republicans are within six seats of controlling the Senate. If they win Senate control and keep their House majority, even deeper frustrations would await President Barack Obama in his final two years in office.
By changing rules at the presidential level and showering money and support on candidates in North Carolina, Georgia, Michigan and more states, Republican leaders are trying to drum out tea party-approved candidates they consider flawed -- like ones who were seen as costing the GOP winnable Senate seats in Delaware, Missouri and Nevada in recent years.
"It makes sense to get control of the process," said Borges, who was attending the national Republicans' meeting in Memphis this week where officials were rewriting the rules on presidential debates.
Merging the factions is uncomfortable for all sides, and weighted heavily in favor of the well-financed and organized Republican Party, its state affiliates and allied groups like the Chamber of Commerce. In contrast, the tea party is a loosely affiliated group of conservative activists -- some who now call themselves the "liberty movement" -- who favor smaller government and a balanced budget. Public favor is waning for the firebrands, polls find. And as the Republican Party calculates how to cull the best of the tea party's candidates and energy, the activists are trying to figure out what they've won in the four-year-long struggle for control of the GOP.
Establishment candidates now "run on our message; they run as populists," said Daniel Horowitz of the conservative Madison Project, which has endorsed candidates in more than a dozen GOP primaries. "In one sense, it's frustration on our part. On the other, it shows that we're winning."
Said Matt Kibbe, whose FreedomWorks PAC opposes the re-election bids of Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky and Sen. Thad Cochran in Mississippi: "We organize grassroots to change the behavior of the people already in office. That's the whole point of participating in the primary process."
Public opinion suggests that some voters have tired of the tea party's cut-it-or-shut-it approach to governing after years of crises in which House conservatives' refusal to compromise brought the nation to the brink of a default and helped drive a partial government shutdown. A Gallup survey out Thursday found that about four in 10 Republicans and GOP-leaning independents classify themselves as supporters of the tea party, down from more than six in 10 -- a high-water mark -- in November 2010.
The Gallup survey follows an AP-GfK poll in March that found about one in five Americans supports the tea party, a modest improvement from public approval of the movement at the height of the government shutdown in October.
Looking ahead to 2016's presidential race, Republican officials meeting in Memphis are trying to figure out how to prevent a nominating contest that leaves an establishment-favored candidate battling tea party-styled longshots. Republican National Committee members are rewriting rules to shorten the nomination period and limit the number of debates.
An RNC panel on Thursday recommended a 13-member committee that would pick debate hosts and limit how many can take place. Candidates who participate in rogue forums would be banned from attending future, RNC-sanctioned debates.
The full RNC was set to take up the measure on Friday.
In effect, the tighter rules would make it more difficult for an outsider or under-funded candidate to find success.
In 2012, strong debate performances kept tea party-favored candidates such as Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain in the running well past their viability. In all, 20 media-sponsored debates kept eventual GOP nominee Mitt Romney occupied fending off challengers well into the election year, rather than focusing early on Obama. In 2016, the goal would be for six to 10 debates before February or March.