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

By Michael Kranish

The Boston Globe

Published: Saturday, Nov. 6 2010 12:38 a.m. MDT

A national poll of Republicans released Thursday by CNN underscored the fluidity of the White House contest. It indicated that Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, is the favorite of many religious conservatives, leading a speculative field with 21 percent, followed by Romney at 20 percent and Palin at 14 percent. But such polls are often little more than registers of name recognition; four years ago, the leader was Rudy Giuliani, the former New York City mayor, who went nowhere in the primaries.

Romney declined to comment about the presidential race.

His spokesman, Eric Fehrnstrom, noted that the former governor has worked hard behind the scenes to elect Republicans in the midterms, with his political action committee donating $1.1 million to 500 candidates and organizations this year and with Romney visiting 32 states.

In recent days, Romney has stepped up his visibility, appearing on Fox News and authoring an op-ed for The Washington Post in which he laid out what may be a key element of his campaign message. He wrote that the United States' own "government is a greater threat to America in 2010 than China was in 1972" — an anti-Washington message that is in line with tea party movement thinking.

Several candidates, however, are hoping they can vault ahead of Romney either by positioning themselves as leaders of tea party-like efforts or by demonstrating they have taken actions at the state and congressional level that are in line with the movement.

Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House, who has courted the tea party movement and plans to decide in February whether to seek the presidential nomination, said a successful nominee will probably be one who can be a spokesman for a grass-roots movement, not just someone with his or her own agenda. "There is no single personal candidate's ambition who will be adequate for the scale of what's coming," he said.

Palin faces the challenge of having high negative ratings at this early stage. She was viewed unfavorably by 49 percent of those surveyed by CNN. Kirkham, the Utah tea party organizer, said a number of tea party leaders view her as a potential kingmaker in the nomination process instead of a contender.

While a number of Palin's picks won election Tuesday, some Senate candidates most identified with her lost, including Christine O'Donnell in Delaware and Angle. In her home state of Alaska, ballots are being counted to determine whether write-in candidate Lisa Murkowski beat Palin's pick, Joe Miller.

Several potential presidential candidates could come from the ranks of Republican governors who are known for their fiscal discipline and thus can make claims to fidelity to the tea party movement, including Mitch Daniels of Indiana, Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, and Haley Barbour of Mississippi. A relatively unknown candidate could appear on the scene.

Pawlenty has been particularly aggressive in laying the groundwork for a potential bid, establishing a political action committee in the first-primary state of New Hampshire and visiting there six times in the past year. Pawlenty said Romney is the putative front-runner, but added it would be a mistake to discount Palin's power.

"I think so much of it depends on who else is running," he said. "If Sarah Palin were to get into the race, that could change the dynamic a lot."

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