The Tea Party's Mitt Romney Crisis

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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.

"Ultimately, they're not going to pull the lever for Obama, but there's movement within the movement right now," he said. "Mitt is going to have to woo them. Getting their vote is one thing; getting their impassioned commitment is another thing, and the impassioned commitment is what it takes to win."

Even among this friendly group, there was a widespread sentiment that Romney could not afford to be seen as turning his back on the Tea Party's concerns.

Maria D'Arcy, a 52-year-old university worker with wavy brown hair, was an independent before she became a Republican four years ago to support Romney in the primary. Since then, she's channeled her political passion through the Tea Party, going to local meetings and rallies. While D'Arcy remains a strong Romney supporter, she says many of her friends still need convincing.

"I think they're making their way toward [Romney], but a lot of work still needs to be done," she said. "A lot of them still blame him for health care in Massachusetts, but I think people can change and I don't think there's any perfect candidate. He still needs to reach out and make the Tea Party more comfortable with who he is."

Joseph Latzko, a 61-year-old salesman in a faded red Phillies shirt, gold chain and khaki shorts, said he supported Santorum until the Pennsylvanian exited the race. "You know, he is what he is," Latzko said of Romney. "There's enough there for me to contrast with who he's running against."

The Tea Party faces a dilemma with regard to November: If Romney wins, the Republican Party is, symbolically, back in the hands of the GOP establishment, potentially for the long term. But if Romney loses, the rap on the Tea Party intensifies -- the criticism that it is a disorganized, destructive force more concerned with guarding its ideological purity than winning elections. Even worse, a Tea Party that doesn't come through in a presidential year would likely be viewed as waning into irrelevance.

While it seems inevitable that the movement's rank and file will come around to Romney, it is a process many do not relish.

"Mitt Romney is certainly not the first candidate of the Tea Party movement," said Matt Kibbe, president of the Tea Party organizing group FreedomWorks, which opposed Romney in the primary. Now that he's the all-but-certain nominee, the group plans to focus on Senate races across the country.

Tea Partiers working for swing-state Senate candidates could drive turnout up the ticket, ultimately benefiting Romney with a reverse-coattail effect, Kibbe said. But as things stand today, the zeal to defeat Obama isn't remotely matched by enthusiasm for electing Romney.

"The question is not whether Tea Partiers are going to support Barack Obama," Kibbe said. "The question is whether the enthusiasm is going to be there to turn out and work and build a ground game for Mitt Romney. Romney still has work to do if he wants to really drive that energy."

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

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