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

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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."

As far as the medium, the Romney campaign frequently deploys surrogates like Sen. Marco Rubio and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who are popular with both the Tea Party and the establishment. The Palins and Wests of the political world, not so much. Romney may have reason to keep his distance: Polls have shown the movement's favorability ratings tanking among the American public, and the nominee surely does not want to be aligned with a faction of the party many consider extreme.

Jenny Beth Martin, cofounder of the Tea Party Patriots, said that Romney's laser-like focus on the Obama economy is understandable, given that the election rests in the hands of undecided voters. "I think the campaign has a strategy, and they're adhering to whatever strategy that is with exact precision," Martin said. "Personally, I would like, and the movement would like, somebody who is fighting and championing our cause, which is the Constitution."

Still, Martin said it would behoove Romney and Republicans to remember the firepower that the Tea Party packed in 2010. "The historic change of the House of Representatives would not have happened without the tea parties," she said, adding: "Tea Party activists are not diehard Republicans. They're diehard Americans."

As far as Tampa goes, early signs don't look good for the Tea Party getting its moment in the spotlight. A Newsweek story recently doused any speculation that Palin would be returning to the convention stage for an encore performance. The former Alaska governor said she had yet to be invited to the Tampa convention, much less offered a chance to speak, although she's keeping that week open.

GOP consultant Keith Appell said ignoring the Tea Party seems like a mistake. "If you're given a national stage and spotlight, it would be great ... to really confirm what we already know: that the Tea Party is the 800-pound gorilla in the room," he said. "Doesn't it make sense to bring them in? To feature them somehow? They pack a wallop."

Others pointed out that, niceties like speeches aside, what's important is that Tea Party voters turn out and vote for Romney on Election Day, whether enthusiastically or begrudgingly, in their fervor to defeat Obama.

Exhibit A: The Tea Party Express, a national organization, recently announced a three-week bus tour across battleground states to support Romney and Republicans across the country. Exhibit B: A full 97 percent of those who identify themselves as Tea Party voters support Romney, according to an early July survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

"If [Romney] starts articulating his vision for America and articulates what he wants to do to sustain this government that we have, and have liberty and freedom, I think all individuals -- Tea Party or non-Tea Party -- are going to be excited about voting for him," said Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, another Tea Party freshman from Idaho.

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Naureen Khan is a staff reporter at National Journal.

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