Does Romney's Survival Show The Tea Party's Limitations?

Another frontrunner aims for the center, despite Republicans' rightward shift

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They've been down this road before, the Republican primary voters. And they have seen the perils in taking the safe choice. Safe is not very exciting, and excited voters are what they want in the race to turn Barack Obama out of office.

Michele Bachmann's repeated pleas to the conservative base to demand an arch-conservative ("Don't settle") have been aimed to head off just the sort of consensus that seems to be gathering around Romney. And it will take a late surge from a candidate who can coalesce the anti-Romney conservatives to deny the former Massachusetts governor the Republican nomination, Republican strategists are saying.

"The clock is ticking" on Perry's chances to be that candidate, a Republican operative told the Associated Press, which examines whether Romney's apparent resistance to attacks from the rate shows the weakness of the Tea Party, the intra-Republican conservative surge that helped the party win a large bloc of seats from Democrats and re-take the House of Representatives in 2010.

Romney is playing like he's got the lead, the AP notes, and is already hinting at the tack to the ideological center that would be possible for the candidate who won elections in Democratic Massachusetts, and who has not staked out positions as strict as some of his rivals on some social issues. He even defended TARP!

In last week's debate in New Hampshire, Romney defended President George W. Bush's 2008 decision to spend billions to rescue banks teetering on collapse, partly because of disastrous home loans. The action was meant not just to save banks, Romney said, "but to keep the entire currency of the country worth something and to keep all the banks from closing and to make sure we didn't all lose our jobs."

Many conservatives despise the bailout, known as TARP, for Troubled Asset Relief Program. In one of their first political victories, tea party activists in Utah chanted "TARP, TARP" at then-Sen. Robert Bennett as they bounced him from the GOP ticket at a 2010 party convention. Bennett, a three-term senator with solid conservative credentials, had voted for the program.

Romney's argument is the winnability argument; that he is the solid, centrist choice, whatever voters' hearts may tell them about the conservative firebrands (Santorum, Bachmann, Cain) sharing the stage. It's a familiar calculation in both parties (ask Dennis Kucinich, or Pat Buchanan), this search for the guy who feels just imperfect enough to appeal to the neighbor you don't agree with. That will be the guy who can win. (Kucinich, of course, lost a primary to John Kerry. And how'd Bob Dole work out?)

If the AP analysis holds, and the defense of TARP is a head fake in the direction Romney will take in the general, then he will be trying to win by seeking consensus, not by simply riling up the base. This was, of course, part of the Barack Obama storyline in 2008. That campaign was to transcend the usual political calculations, and achieve political success almost as a byproduct of uniting Americans around their common ideals.

This time, look who's trying to rile up the base. The campaign wants to use the anger on display at the Occupy Wall Street protests to its advantage, The Washington Post reports. The outrage at the banks is not just restricted to liberals and Democrats, polling has found. But it could be a way to bring back into the fold some of those former Obama supporters who have been disappointed that he has not been more aggressive in dealing with the financial sector and its defenders in Congress.

Obama aides point to recent surveys that show anger at Wall Street spanning ideologies, including a new Washington Post-ABC News poll in which 68 percent of independents and 60 percent of Republicans say they have unfavorable impressions of the big financial institutions.

But the strategy of channeling anti-Wall Street anger carries risks. Many of Obama’s senior advisers have ties to the financial industry — a point that makes Occupy protesters wary of the president and his party.

Their lack of enthusiasm is a major threat to Barack Obama's chances. The same might be said for the conservative activists who feel deflated at the thought that their party might soon nominate the former governor who signed a universal healthcare law, and who's not afraid, even in a Republican primary debate, to defend TARP.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.