Tea party success could hurt Romney's chances at a presidential bid in 2012

By Michael Kranish

The Boston Globe

Published: Friday, Nov. 5 2010 11:00 p.m. MDT

Mitt Romney was booed by delegates at May's GOP convention for endorsing Bob Bennett over winner Mike Lee.

August Miller, Deseret News

WASHINGTON — Tea party activists are injecting into the 2012 GOP presidential primary an element of antiestablishment volatility that could hurt Mitt Romney's possible bid while benefiting a fast-growing crop of conservative candidates, political observers say.

"It is wide open," former House majority leader Dick Armey, one of the leaders of the tea party movement, said of the potential field of candidates. In a twist of GOP tradition, the nominee could be someone Americans know little about, he said.

"The defining influence electorally in America is we are tired of big-shot insiders taking care of themselves and one another," said Armey, chairman of FreedomWorks, which seeks to mobilize conservative voters.

In the most typical Republican path to the nomination, party insiders all but anoint an establishment candidate early, then primary voters confirm the candidate. Romney, who ran strongly in the 2008 primaries, has been widely portrayed as the establishment front-runner.

But that path could be thrown off course as tea party activists try to build upon their influence in the midterm elections and make further inroads into the GOP power structure, analysts say.

Romney did reach out to the tea party movement by donating to a number of its nominees in this year's congressional elections but that was sometimes after they had defeated mainstream Republicans. Some conservative insurgents distrust him because of the Massachusetts health care plan he helped engineer while governor, although Romney has disputed assertions that the program served as a model for President Barack Obama's national plan.

Romney's decision to interject himself in a Utah primary also has hurt him among tea party movement activists. Although Romney has lived in Utah and is viewed as widely popular there, Republicans at a state convention booed his endorsement of Sen. Bob Bennett over tea party movement candidate, Mike Lee, who went on to win the nomination and the seat.

"I think he's done," David Kirkham, a tea party movement leader in Utah who was at the state convention, said of Romney. He predicted tea party movement followers across the country would reject Romney as too strongly linked to the party establishment.

But some analysts say the extent of the tea party movement's influence on the GOP presidential primaries is unclear after the mixed results of the midterm elections Tuesday. The movement's high-profile losses ?— especially Sharron Angle's failure to knock off Senate majority leader Harry Reid in Nevada, as well as defeats in Colorado and Delaware Senate races — have strengthened contentions among party regulars that electing a candidate strongly affiliated with the tea party could hurt GOP chances of capturing the White House.

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, said he had thought Romney's hopes would be dashed by a strong showing of the movement in the midterms. But after analyzing tea party losses in Senate contests, Sabato reached a different conclusion.

"Now mainstream Republicans will rethink the nomination, and that will help Romney and some others," he said.

Such an approach could limit the prospects of those closely aligned to the tea party movement, particularly Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor, whose protégés in Delaware and Nevada, and possibly Alaska, fumbled chances to help the GOP retake the Senate.

Romney heads into his expected second White House bid with several advantages: high name recognition, a strong national political network, the potential to self-finance a presidential run, and a legion of grateful Republican candidates whom he showered with campaign contributions. He is considered the front-runner by some of his potential competitors.

He must, however, carve a path somewhere between the powers in the Republican Party — the tea party movement and the establishment.

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