Romney at the Center of a Tea Party Spat

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FreedomWorks, the big-time Tea Party booster run by seasoned Washington insiders, has been a co-sponsor of the latest cross-country bus tour organized by the Sacramento-based Tea Party Express, a sign of the uneasy peace that has mostly prevailed between the myriad Tea Party factions. But Mitt Romney’s planned appearance on the tour has opened a fissure between the two. On Wednesday, citing opposition to Romney, FreedomWorks announced that it will sever its ties to the tour and join local New Hampshire Tea Party groups in protesting Romney’s speech.

Romney has “actively and consistently supported expanding the role of government through government-run health care, Wall Street bailouts and spending hikes. Those positions are unacceptable to the tea party principles of lower taxes, less government and more freedom,” said Matt Kibbe, President of FreedomWorks. “For these reasons, we have decided to end our participation in the Reclaiming America tour.” Romney’s speech, slated for Sunday in Concord, N.H., marked one of his first overtures to a movement he has largely held at arm’s length as rivals like Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry vied for its support. Many Tea Partyers are wary of Romney, whose health care plan in Massachusetts is considered antithetical to the movement’s tenets.

In a statement that called FreedomWorks’ decision to split with the tour  “at best as a misguided press stunt,” Tea Party Express explained that the group’s policy is to provide a forum at which presidential candidates can plead their case to movement members. “Even when we have endorsed a candidate, we have still allowed their political opponents to speak. That’s because the Tea Party Express trusts the ability of tea party members to evaluate candidates and issues, and make up their own minds,” the group said. “We don’t think it is right to tell the tea party who (sic) they can and can’t listen to. A top-down isolationist approach isn’t constructive to the political process.”

By contrast, FreedomWorks believes in drawing a hard line. “We have to defend our brand against poseurs,” organizer Brendan Steinhauser told Politico. Fair enough. And yet, an oft-repeated FreedomWorks mantra is that the Tea Party is “about education.” Pulling out of tour with prejudice denies its members the chance to size Romney up for themselves.