Romney's Tea Party Test: Who Will Speak at His Convention?

Giving a member of the movement a prominent speaking slot in Tampa could ease worries that the GOP candidate is a wishy-washy moderate.

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Reuters

If the Tea Party was putting on the Republican National Convention next month in Tampa, Florida, the lineup might look like this: former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin; Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota; Rep. Allen West of Florida; former presidential contender and all-around firecracker Herman Cain; and maybe even Rick Santorum, the former senator and onetime thorn in Mitt Romney's side.

Convention organizers insist that no decisions have been finalized, so the program remains unclear. What is clear is that the convention poses a test and an opportunity for Romney. By his speaker choices, he could put to rest the lingering perception that there's a gulf between him and a skeptical segment of the GOP base -- or not.

Romney's woes with the Tea Party were a frequent theme during his months-long slog toward the nomination. He had a tough sell, given his reversals on social issues and his signature Massachusetts health law, which was the model for President Obama's federal overhaul.

Even as pundits saw Romney as the inevitable GOP nominee, exit polls showed Tea Party-aligned voters shunning him for months. At this stage, Tea Party organizations and activists have almost uniformly voiced support for the presumptive nominee, but his biggest selling point seems to be that he is not the current White House occupant.

"There's a keen sense of urgency in defeating this president and his agenda," said Al Cardenas, president of the American Conservative Union. "There's hope that Mitt Romney can accomplish that."

The danger for Romney is that he doesn't appear to listen to the Tea Party base, its supporters could stay home or vote for a third-party candidate. In what is widely being predicted to be a close election, those actions could hurt him.

For Tea Party activists and other conservatives looking for more assurances about the former Massachusetts governor's bona fides, Cardenas said, a few major tests loom. They include his choice of running mate and the message that is broadcast from the convention stage in Tampa.

Romney has focused almost exclusively on attacking Obama's stewardship of the economy and his own credentials as a turnaround businessman in making his case to voters. You don't hear much from him on favorite Tea Party issues such as constitutional fidelity, limited government, or even fiscal responsibility, as Gov. Scott Walker said to reporters at a recent National Governors Association meeting.

"Republicans have always done a poor job of articulating that message," said Rep. Jeff Landry, R-La., a freshman House member who was elected in 2010 thanks to the Tea Party-fueled wave. "My hope is that Governor Romney is going to do a better job each and every day of articulating that message."

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Naureen Khan is a staff reporter at National Journal.

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