Mitt Romney
Joshua Lott  /  REUTERS
Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney speaks during a town hall meeting in Sun Lakes, Ariz. on Friday.
updated 10/15/2011 12:56:51 PM ET 2011-10-15T16:56:51

Mitt Romney's early success in the Republican presidential race is challenging the tea party's clout. Will it continue to pull the GOP sharply right? Will it slowly fade? Or merge with mainstream Republican elements in a nod to pragmatism, something it's hardly known for?

On the surface, Romney's strength seems at odds with the tea party's fiery success in ousting Republicans seen as compromisers, and in making the House GOP caucus more ideological, even when its leaders plead for flexibility.

Romney defends the government's 2008 bank bailouts, plus the mandated health insurance he initiated as Massachusetts governor. He says he can work with "good Democrats." Although he later changed, Romney once supported abortion rights, gun control and gay rights.

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These positions run counter to the beliefs and goals of many tea party activists scattered throughout the country. Yet Romney is faring better in polls, fundraising and debates than are contenders with stronger tea party credentials, including Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum and Rick Perry.

Several Republican strategists, and even some tea party leaders, say they aren't surprised or alarmed. Their overarching goal is to defeat President Barack Obama next year, they say, and if Romney is best-positioned to do that, they'll endure his shortcomings.

"The perception that tea partyers are ideological purists is wrong," said Sal Russo, a long-time Republican strategist in California and a leader of the Tea Party Express. "We are a broad-based movement," he said, "and we are looking to win in 2012."

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Danny Diaz, a Washington-based Republican strategist unaligned with any presidential candidates, agrees.

"The tea party movement is an anti-Washington movement," he said. While Perry and Herman Cain might make a more dynamic claim to that mantle, he said, Romney has never lived in Washington, and tea party activists won't rule him out.

"Many of them are pragmatists," Diaz said. They desperately want to oust Obama, he said, and "they need a candidate that's electable."

A CBS-New York Times poll found that tea partyers are more satisfied with the GOP presidential field than are Republicans in general. Cain was the top choice among tea party activists, with Romney second.

Problems ahead for Romney?
Some campaign veterans see bigger problems ahead for Romney.

Polls of Republicans show Romney holding steady at about 25 percent, while Bachmann, Perry and Cain take turns making surges. "That tells me that 75 percent of the primary voters would really rather have someone else," said GOP lobbyist and consultant Mike McKenna.

GOP mindful of Cain's race, Romney's faith

Many tea party activists have little or no loyalty to the Republican Party, and McKenna predicts big problems next year if they feel their conservative values were sacrificed for political expediency. "Romney would cause enormous numbers of tea party-type voters to simply not show on game day," he said.

The chief question, he said, "is whether one candidate will be able to aggregate the anti-Romney Republicans before it is too late." Perry seems the likeliest choice, McKenna said, "but the clock is ticking."

Jenny Beth Martin of Atlanta, who is active with Tea Party Patriots, said several groups are having informal talks about whether they should try to coalesce behind an alternative to Romney. Tea partyers cherish their independence, she said, and "over the next eight to 10 weeks, it'll be interesting to see how it all shapes up."

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Conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh repeatedly criticized Romney on his radio show last week. "Romney is not a conservative," he said. "The Republican base doesn't want Romney."

For now, Romney seems willing to run some risks, hoping to attract independent voters who will be crucial in the 2012 general election.

In last week's debate in New Hampshire, Romney defended President George W. Bush's 2008 decision to spend billions to rescue banks teetering on collapse, partly because of disastrous home loans. The action was meant not just to save banks, Romney said, "but to keep the entire currency of the country worth something and to keep all the banks from closing and to make sure we didn't all lose our jobs."

Many conservatives despise the bailout, known as TARP, for Troubled Asset Relief Program. In one of their first political victories, tea party activists in Utah chanted "TARP, TARP" at then-Sen. Robert Bennett as they bounced him from the GOP ticket at a 2010 party convention. Bennett, a three-term senator with solid conservative credentials, had voted for the program.

Is Romney a sure thing?

Nonetheless, there was little commentary about Romney's TARP comments after Tuesday's debate, which focused largely on Cain's tax overhaul plan.

It may take hard-hitting TV ads to drive a bigger wedge between Romney and tea partyers, something the well-financed Perry might try soon. Such ads could go into detail, with heavy repetition, about Romney's Massachusetts health care plan, which was a partial model for Obama's 2010 federal overhaul.

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Virginia-based Republican strategist Chris LaCivita says the tea party's deliberately decentralized nature makes it ill-suited to play a big role in presidential politics.

"The tea party's strength was always a state-driven or congressional district-driven level," he said. It can continue to influence targeted contests that draw comparatively small turnouts, such as the Utah GOP convention that drummed Bennett out of the party.

Moreover, LaCivita said, the tea party might choke on its own success. If it appears more like the Republican mainstream, he said, it's because tea partyers have shifted that mainstream to the right.

Largely because of their clout in the 2010 elections, LaCivita said, these activists have "changed the conversation, not only among Republicans, but everybody in Washington. Who'd have thought the Democrats would be leading with spending cuts" in deficit-reduction talks?

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Those ongoing negotiations, however, could renew tensions between tea party-affiliated House Republicans and the party's more established leaders, including Speaker John Boehner. If presidential candidates are pressed for their views, Romney might find it difficult to keep appealing to independents without antagonizing tea partyers.

The Republican Party "still hasn't resolved all of its ideological internal conflicts," said John Feehery, a top aide to then-Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. "But they have agreed that they don't like Obama," he said.

Their level of intensity may determine whether Romney can keep prospering against rivals who boast stronger tea party ties.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Will the Tea Party choose a third party candidate?

  1. Transcript of: Will the Tea Party choose a third party candidate?

    MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL . If people have anointed Mitt Romney as the GOP nominee this year, someone has forgotten to tell the Tea Party . Romney's support has remained flat lined over the past few months. In poll after poll, as I said, his support is stuck somewhere around 25 percent, generally lower than that, not a great place to be for the front-runner. And one reason for his inability to gain traction in the polls is because the base of the party, and most vocally the Tea Party , have been hesitant to get behind him, even though they know him, perhaps with good reason. In a year when passion and anger at the current president is driving the narrative, Romney has cast himself as the pragmatic choice. Here is the challenge he faces, according to this week's NBC /" Wall Street Journal " poll. Herman Cain is leading Romney 27 percent to 23 percent, Rick Perry a distant third now. But among Tea Party supporters, the gap is even more lopsided. Herman Cain has the support of a third of Tea Partiers , Romney only about 21 percent. So if the predictions are correct and Mitt Romney wins the nomination, what does that mean for the Tea Party movement itself? Will they reluctantly get behind him? Will they perhaps look for a third-party candidate? Or does the choice of Mitt Romney say something about the power of the Tea Party ? As " The Huffington Post " asked in a headline yesterday, will Mitt Romney kill the Tea Party ? Matt Kibbe is president of FreedomWorks , one of the largest organizations within the movement, and Steve Kornacki is a political columnist for Salon . Gentleman, thank you for calling both -- coming on, both, within and with outside the Tea Party movement. I am struck -- I'm not a man of the right, but I'm struck over and over again by the fact that Romney seems to be the inevitable nominee, because he keeps in there, and you guys keep changing who you like. Now it's Herman Cain . And I don't sense you're going to win in the long run.

    MATT KIBBE, PRESIDENT, FREEDOMWORKS: Well, we might split our vote, but, right now, it strikes me that Tea Partiers are shopping around. We're checking out all of these various alternatives to Romney , because, clearly, he's the establishment guy, and the question is, can we coalesce around somebody to challenge him? Because if you add up the numbers, if the anti- Romney vote coalesces around --

    MATTHEWS: It's 77 percent.

    KIBBE: -- we win.

    MATTHEWS: Yes, but you can't -- when are you going to get to that point where you can actually knock him out, or he will win? You have to get together, or he will win, right, by definition?

    KIBBE: Right. Right. But we haven't cast a vote yet. And I think -- I do think that this process is more decentralized. I do think that you could easily see this debate go on for quite some time, particularly if Romney can't get above the 20s, because somebody will fill that vacuum.

    MATTHEWS: Do you guys have -- here's my question. You are so Jacobin -like, French revolutionary , that you don't really want an establishment leader. You don't want a John Wayne to tell you what to do. You are all a bit anarchic, and you like to call your own shots individually. Do you want a leader, honestly, a strong leader at the top to tell you where to go, to march, like Reagan ?

    KIBBE: I don't think that that's essentially what we're trying to do.

    MATTHEWS: No, but then how do you get a nominee?

    KIBBE: Well, president is one position, but we'd love to drive the process from the bottom up from now on, just like the freshman class has done in the House and Senate .

    MATTHEWS: So let Romney have it and kick him in the butt once in a while ?

    KIBBE: Well, no. No, we want to find the best candidate that can win. And we don't think that that's Mitt Romney .

    MATTHEWS: OK. Let me go -- let me go to Steve Kornacki . We're trying to figure this thing from the inside. The dynamic to me seems like there's always going to be somebody, as Matt says, who will challenge Romney . He always will have an anti- Romney from the right. The question is, could it be that, in the end, they don't have a strong person from the right, you go to Tampa next September, in 2012 , and they end up having to sit there with their hands under their butts while Romney wins it, the old establishment of the Republican Party wins again? STEVE KORNACKI, SALON.COM: Yes. No, and I think that's probably the most likely scenario, except I -- watching it sort of from the outside, like you're saying, I would put a little different spin on it. I think if Romney comes through this process and wins the nomination - yes, he's the establishment candidate, but I still think in a way, the Tea Party 's won in a very significant way, if that happens. Because when you look at Mitt Romney , we call him sort of the moderate candidate in this race. We're calling him that because in Massachusetts , you know, a decade ago, two decades ago, he definitely was a moderate. And we're calling him that because of the health care plan. And because in this campaign, he's been a little less, you know, willing to go and throw all the red meat out there, unlike in 2008 . So, that's why we're calling him a moderate. But when you look at his actual positions on every issue, right down the line , you know, what they're going to build the Republican Party platform on next September, I really don't see any differences between what the Mitt Romney Republican Party platform would look like next September and what the Rick Perry or even Michele Bachmann Republican Party platform would look like. You know, he's got the health care thing in Massachusetts , but the Mitt Romney platform is going to say that Obamacare is a socialistic abomination and it needs to be repealed, because it's killing jobs and freedom -- just like the Michele Bachmann one would. So, this is not, you know, Nelson Rockefeller against Barry Goldwater . You know, this is really just a question of -- does the Tea Party , does the conservative base of the Republican Party , you know, feel that they can trust and have confidence in Romney to be that same conservative as president, versus moderate, saying, you know, we think he's faking it.

    MATTHEWS: Well, Matt Kibbe doesn't. The man's sitting right here and doesn't have any confidence in the guy.

    MATT KIBBE, FREEDOMWORKS: Well, think about the other thing that's going on is the Senate is in play, and there are a historic number of targets that we can go after as Tea Partiers , not just in a general, where we think we'll pick up enough seats to take the Senate , but in the primaries.

    MATTHEWS: So you think you can control the next president, no matter who he is?

    KIBBE: You're going to have a more energized House and a more energized Senate .

    MATTHEWS: I think you may have a point. Here's a column in the "Guardian" newspaper, D.R. Tucker said, "The base of the Republican Party has turned on Mitt Romney because he's the anti- Tea Party , anti-talk radio, anti-anti-government candidate. Quote, " Romney will never be able to appeal to those who want limited government. He fundamentally cannot: he is, at bottom, a center-right candidate who believes that government, when run effectively and efficiently, can produce the best results for the people. It's a noble view -- one that the GOP base seemingly hates him for. If Romney becomes the GOP nominee, it will prove that the Tea Party project was an abject failure and that the momentum of 2010 was only temporary. Romney doesn't represent taking the country back." My question is, does he have enough anger, just emotionally, against what's been going on, to be your guy's representative in the general election? Does he feel and act like a Tea Partier ?

    KIBBE: Well, I don't think it's how he feels, I think it's what he stands for. And if he's going to run on repealing Obama care, if he comes up with some plan --

    MATTHEWS: But not repealing his Massachusetts plan, which he's very proud of. He said so again this week.

    KIBBE: And that's his problem. That's his problem with us and we're not terribly happy about that. But, again, the legislative power is going to come from the House and Senate . And we're hoping to drive it from the bottom.

    MATTHEWS: It sounds like you guys are receding from the fight over the presidency and saying, we don't have a champion, we'll settle. We'll let Romney have it if he wants to, we'll vote for him, but we'll control him hand and foot. We will bind and gag this guy from control in the House and the Senate .

    KIBBE: Well, ask me that question in April. I still think that the challenge now is to find someone better.

    MATTHEWS: OK. Thank you, both gentlemen. Thank you, Matt Kibbe . Always welcome. Steve, as always. Thank you, sir. It's a short night for us all. Up


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