Faced with growing grass-roots momentum for Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney launched a charm offensive of sorts on Wednesday, casting himself as a friend of the tea party that otherwise probably would oppose him.
Romney met with 25 steelworkers in northern New Hampshire and fielded a question about whether he considers himself a member of the tea party.
"I don't know that you sign a membership," replied Romney. "What I consider myself is someone who is in sync with the tea party.”
That remark was just the latest indication Romney may seek to blur the distinction between the establishment and grass-roots wings of the Republican Party. Observers say he may not need to win a lot of tea party support as long as he can blunt tea partyers' active opposition.
Romney already has earned the grudging respect of one key tea party leader in Congress, Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah.
Chaffetz, the popular tea party figure who is weighing a primary challenge against incumbent GOP Sen. Orrin Hatch, has endorsed Romney.
“Mitt Romney is in the best position to beat Barack Obama,” Chaffetz said, explaining his endorsement, “and I really want to beat Barack Obama.”
With a few more staunch conservatives like Chaffetz in his corner, Romney's strategy may prove formidable, some pundits say.
“I do see Romney making headway with the tea party, but later in the race as the ‘electable’ candidates winnow down,” pollster and syndicated columnist Matt Towery tells Newsmax. “I’m getting a sense that Romney is much like George W. Bush in 2000 — at first, the darling of the establishment; later, the hero of conservatives.”
So far, the consensus is that, as long as Romney is up against Rep. Michele Bachmann, Perry, and Texas Rep. Ron Paul — who trailed Bachmann by only a razor-thin 152 votes in the Iowa Straw Poll — he won’t find much oxygen left under the tea party tent.
But singing the tea party tune could still bring him political benefits, according to Tea Party Patriots co-founder Mark Meckler.
“Tea party values are carrying the day right now,” Meckler tells Newsmax. “Romney has to appeal to that regardless of whether he thinks he’s the tea party guy. He’s got to speak to those values, or he doesn’t have a chance.”
As for how simpatico Romney is with the tea party, Meckler states: “In recent weeks, he’s said things that I wouldn’t say are in sync with the tea party. Like expressing his support for the concept of man-made global warming. That’s not in synch with most people in the tea party.
“Also, his position on forced energy efficiency is not in sync with the tea party. So he’s got positions, that I don’t think are in sync with the tea party, that he has stated openly in recent weeks.”
That suggests Romney may have to sip a lot more tea on the campaign trail before he can expect to garner significant grass-roots support.
In fact, one grass-roots group, Western Representation PAC, already has launched an anybody-but-Romney campaign called “Stop Romney.”
FreedomWorks has expressed strong opposition to him as well, warning that a Romney nomination could discourage many tea party members from taking an activist role in 2012.
The big sticking point for most grass-roots conservatives: Although Romney has pledged to repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act that President Obama signed into law, he has yet to state similar reforms he championed in Massachusetts were a mistake.
“They’re looking at Romneycare as the same thing,” Florida tea party leader Everett Wilkinson tells Newsmax. “I don’t see him getting their votes.”
Other grass-roots conservatives, however, are taking more of a wait-and-see attitude. Tea Party Express Chairwoman Amy Kremer, for example, recently told Newsmax: “We want to see who rises to the top and best represents the core values and principles of the tea party.”
It could be a mistake to bet against Romney’s ability to persuade hearts-and-minds on the campaign trail. Consider who South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, the gold standard of GOP candidates, endorsed in the 2008 GOP presidential primary: Mitt Romney.
Those close to DeMint say he won’t repeat that endorsement, however, unless Romney renounces the controversial healthcare reforms that he instituted in Massachusetts. And so far, there’s no indication he will.
Either way, voters should look for Romney’s charm offensive to continue.
“They have to speak this way,” says Meckler, “because the tea party has brought these issues to the front of the country’s consciousness. In general, my belief is the American people are much smarter than the politicians who represent them. They get it, it is common sense.
“They know we can’t continue to do what we have been doing,” he says. “And now that they’re paying attention, the politicians whoever they are just have to speak this language.”
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