Jacquelyn Martin, File, Associated Press
CONCORD, N.H. — The tea party movement is mixing a strange political brew in famously independent New Hampshire, complicating the first-in-the-nation primary strategy for the growing number of potential Republican presidential hopefuls.
Tea party activists have made significant inroads in a state that typically prefers GOP moderates and establishment candidates when choosing White House nominees. The grass-roots movement has claimed leadership posts at the local and county level, and in a stunning development last month, tea party-backed Jack Kimball edged out businesswoman Juliana Bergeron for state party chairman.
Would-be White House contenders like Tim Pawlenty, Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani, who as recently as four years ago would have focused on wooing GOP establishment figures, now are making quiet overtures to activists in this early voting state. Tea partiers are ready to push presidential contenders to embrace their outsider rhetoric and punish candidates who espouse moderate policies. Scores of new voters have become engaged in politics and they could rewrite the traditional rules of the primary, which in past cycles rewarded early groundwork and establishment support.
"The conservative base is sowing its oats," said Fergus Cullen, a former state GOP chairman. "They feel empowered in a way they didn't feel before. And they will have strong opinions about what they want. That's not everybody running for president."
At this stage, the primary stands as a wide-open contest that hinges on whether the new tea party voters unify behind one candidate or remain splintered.
"A frontrunner? It's hard to predict," said Maureen Mooney, a Merrimack activist who was often at Sen. John McCain's side as he won the primary in 2008 en route to the Republican nomination. "It's still early, and we have some serious candidates who deserve a look."
Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who came in a close second in the 2008 primary, enjoys high name identification and benefits from the remnants of his previous campaign operation and a political action committee that has been busy spreading dollars and earning chits in early voting states.
"Gov. Romney has a lot support from his last campaign," said Franklin Mayor Ken Merrifield. "But we've seen in past years where the person ahead at the beginning is not the winner."
Four years ago, Giuliani was the national frontrunner. That luster fizzled as Giuliani campaigned in fits and starts in the early states then abandoned them for Florida, his make-or-break primary. It broke him.
In recent weeks, Giuliani and his allies have quietly been talking to activists to see just how much damage he dealt himself among the political class who view their first-in-the-nation role as sacred. Giuliani has scheduled a visit to New Hampshire in March and has hinted he may seek the nomination again if his party appears poised to nominate someone he views as too extreme, such as Sarah Palin or Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota.
Independents are the largest voting bloc in New Hampshire — for either party primary. In 2000 and 2008, McCain won the Republican primary after George W. Bush in '00 and Mike Huckabee in '08 energized conservatives to prevail in Iowa.
Cranky New Hampshire voters seldom ratify national trends and the ascendant tea party leaders are looking for an outsider who will heed their orthodoxy. If they sustain their enthusiasm, tea party-style activists could completely reshape who is showing up at the polls for the primary, tentatively scheduled for Feb. 14 of next year.
Pawlenty has set up an aggressive political operation in the state, building goodwill among activists, both new and veteran. His political action committee dispatched six staffers to the state to help the state party during its September primary and funneled cash into state races, helping gain 124 new seats for the party in the New Hampshire state House.
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