How Tea Party Indecision Is Boosting Mitt Romney

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Shawn Thew / EPA

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney shakes hands with a phone bank volunteer while visiting the GOP Victory Center in Fairfax, Virginia, Oct. 26, 2011.

How lucky has Mitt Romney’s presidential run been so far? Even conservatives scrambling to find an alternative to the Massachusetts governor are inadvertently boosting his bid for the Republican nomination. 

For more than two years, the Tea Party has been casting for a conservative champion to take on Barack Obama, and Romney has never made their call list. For many Tea Party members, his health-care law is a deal-breaker; others see him as a squishy pragmatist unfit to serve as the standard-bearer of their ideological movement. But Tea Partyers are also coming to grips with the realization that the candidates auditioning for their support in the presidential race all have blemishes of their own.

Several of Romney’s rivals can lay claim to strong Tea Party support. Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Herman Cain have all enjoyed a stretch as the movement’s presumptive savior, while Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich boast robust followings. But no one has separated themselves from the pack jostling to position themselves as Romney’s chief rival. As a result, the movement has fractured, splitting its support between a slew of candidates — and leaving Romney without a singular, formidable foil.

“I have my issues with Romney, as do most people,” says Christen Varley of the Greater Boston Tea Party. “However, nobody really seems to like anybody else.”

This week’s CNN/TIME/ORC poll of Republican voters in the first four primary battlegrounds provides a snapshot of how Tea Party fickleness has enhanced Romney’s standing. In Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida, Romney fares better among more moderate GOPers than he does among religious conservatives and self-identified Tea Party supporters. But the latter group has been unable to zero in on a favorite. In Iowa, for example, Cain — the current object of Tea Party ardor — leads with 29% of self-professed Tea Party backers, with Gingrich at 13%, Paul at 12% and Perry at 8%. Romney, running first with 24% overall (and 17% among Tea Partyers), is the beneficiary of this crowded field. Thanks to a divided Tea Party bloc, he leads among this cohort in New Hampshire, ties Cain for first among movement supporters in Florida and sits second in South Carolina.

“Romney’s hope has to be that all the conservatives stay in the race through the first few states,” says Ryan Hecker, a Tea Party activist who crafted the movement’s Contract From America. “If there is one conservative alternative to Mitt Romney, Tea Partyers will rally around that person.”

Hecker is a staunch opponent of Romney, whom he accuses of changing his position on a host of issues, from health care to the flat tax. “Anyone conservative who knows his record has to be against Mitt Romney,” Hecker says. And yet, while they haven’t forgiven Romney’s sins, Tea Partyers are becoming acquainted with those of his rivals, and they may be giving Romney another look as a result.

Over Labor Day weekend, FreedomWorks, the Washington-based Tea Party advocacy group whose PAC Hecker works for, protested Romney’s appearance at a rally hosted by the Tea Party Express, explaining that the Tea Party needed to protect itself against posers trying to swaddle themselves in the Gadsden flag. But within weeks, the movement’s official line against Romney had softened. In an interview with the Huffington Post in late September, Matt Kibbe, FreedomWorks’ CEO, allowed that Romney “has the opportunity to rehabilitate himself.”

“It’s not enough to be right and lose. The goal here is to win the presidency,” he said. “For all of our reputation as strident ideologues, I think Tea Partyers are quite practical when it comes to politics. They’re looking at electable candidates.”

Kibbe was unable to be reached for comment for this story, but Brendan Steinhauser, the organization’s director of federal and state campaigns, said he had not seen a groundswell of support for Romney. “Maybe some folks are saying Romney is the electable guy and [backing] him,” Steinhauser says, pointing to conservative congressmen like Jason Chaffetz and Jeff Flake, who have endorsed the former Massachusetts governor. “But they’re definitely more interested in finding a conservative alternative. They’re just still figuring out who that is.”

The glacial pace of this decision-making process has already given Romney an opening in Iowa, where a victory in the state’s caucuses could prove a decisive blow if, as expected, he’s able to follow it up in New Hampshire. The Tea Party is girding itself for the possibility. Several members of the movement say that without a sparkling candidate in the presidential race, they would be better served concentrating their energies on the battle to recapture the Senate, which could serve as a firewall against President Obama or a disappointing replacement. The Tea Party’s goal is still to make Barack Obama a one-term President. But its inability to settle on an alternative to Romney increases the chance that they’ll have no other option.