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.
But the old playbook may not yield a victory if the tea party has its say.
"It's anybody's bag," said state Rep. Fran Wendelboe, a conservative activist and former state legislator. "Pawlenty is one of the strongest. But some of the names we talk about haven't even visited yet."
Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels has not made the introductory contacts needed in the state. Others are looking for Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, a national tea party leader. Newt Gingrich and Huckabee also have been invited as they eye the White House.
An ally to Sen. John Thune of South Dakota has been making phone calls from his Upper Valley home to court activists, but the senator hasn't made a public trip here and his aides are trying to manage the presidential chatter.
The biggest uncertainty for the field is Palin, her party's vice presidential nominee in 2008 and a potent political personality. Palin endorsed Kelly Ayotte in last year's GOP Senate primary and riled some conservatives in the state, who were unified in backing another candidate.
Activists say they'd like Palin to visit — she last was in the state during the final days of the 2008 presidential campaign — and are eager to question her at house parties and town hall-style meetings. Yet there are doubts she would do the hard work the early states require instead of favoring a Facebook, Twitter and Fox News Channel path.
"New Hampshire voters deserve to check you out, check your record," said Cullen, the former state GOP chairman. "No one wins here without the work."
Former Sen. Rick Santorum, who lost his 2006 re-election bid in Pennsylvania, has been the most aggressive in visits to the state. He hired Mike Biundo, a veteran of Pat Buchanan's winning 1996 primary effort, as an adviser. He also picked up the backing of Claira Monier, a Romney backer from 2008. Monier's departure from Romney's circle has given other conservative activists pause and some see it as giving permission for other defections.
Santorum's social conservative message isn't a natural fit for New Hampshire, where the "Live Free or Die" state motto emphasizes individual rights and tends to eschew issues such as abortion or gay marriage, which is legal in the libertarian-leaning state. But with the tea party and empowered activists, the conservative wing may find a punch that Huckabee or Sam Brownback were unable to harness in 2008.
While the behind-the-scenes positioning is well under way for activists, hiring is not. At this point in 2007, McCain had already hired a dozen operatives for a sprawling headquarters in the Manchester Mill Yard. Those aides were already placing hundreds of calls a day to activists and rank-and-file voters.
This year, no one has opened offices and only a handful of strategists are drawing paychecks.
"There was a full-court press at this point four years ago," said Wendelboe, the conservative activist. "They're going to get going, and soon. They've got to."