The Tea Party's Mitt Romney Crisis

Between the grassroots conservative movement and the Republican nominee-in-waiting, a grudging acknowledgment that they need each other.

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Reuters

PHILADELPHIA -- The Tea Party's worst nightmare has come to pass: Mitt Romney is going to be the Republican presidential nominee.

For the movement that made its mark in 2010 chiefly by giving moderate, establishment Republicans a drubbing in primaries across the country -- staking claim to the soul of the GOP on behalf of a newly energized, populist group of activists, no matter the cost -- this is nothing short of a catastrophe. For the movement to achieve its ultimate goal of toppling President Obama, it now must join forces with just the kind of compromised, compromising Republican whose elimination was its raison d'etre.

Romney, meanwhile, must mend fences with a movement that demands his respect and attention in the wake of his untidy primary victory -- and one that is broadly unpopular with the general population. One recent poll found 41 percent of Americans support the Tea Party while 45 percent oppose it, and 50 percent say the more they hear about it, the less they like it.

And so, on Monday, Romney attempted to thread the needle in Philadelphia. Before an unusually pro-Romney Tea Party group, he gave a speech that was longer on symbolism than persuasion, an attempt to show that the Tea Party is with him without necessarily showing that he is with the Tea Party.

The Independence Hall Tea Party Association, which counts members in Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, was the first such group to endorse Romney, it claims. There were no "Don't Tread on Me" flags or tricorne hats to be seen among the well-dressed, paying crowd at a downtown science museum, and many of the 400 attendees said they identified more as Republican Party activists than Tea Party members. One hesitates to generalize about a diverse grassroots movement, but this didn't feel like the real Tea Party.

Before this crowd, at least, Romney got the warm welcome he sought. Romney spoke beneath a looming white marble statue of a seated Benjamin Franklin and a handsome blue banner, specially fabricated by the Romney campaign, bearing the group's logo of a tea bag in place of the Liberty Bell.

The candidate spoke for about 25 minutes, his deep tan from recent time in California and Florida popping against the pale marble of the airy atrium. He used the words "Tea Party" only twice at the beginning of the speech, in acknowledging the group he was addressing, and spent most of his time focused on a Tax Day-themed message. "Taxes by their very definition limit our freedom," Romney said. "They should be as small as possible."

Romney mocked the administration's proposal, voted down earlier Monday, for a "Buffett Rule" tax on the wealthy, saying it would only raise enough revenue to operate the government for 11 hours -- "not exactly a grand idea." For vowing to repeal Obamacare, embracing "one nation under God" and the like, he got three-and-a-half standing ovations from an increasingly fired-up crowd.

Sam Rohrer, a Tea Party-aligned former Pennsylvania state legislator now running for U.S. Senate, said it wasn't a representative Tea Party crowd. Most of the grass-roots Tea Party organizations in the state supported Rick Santorum before he suspended his campaign last week, and are now somewhat adrift as they try to assess where to go from here, Rohrer said in an interview.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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