Brian Blanco, Associated Press
BERLIN, N.H. — The tea party is forcefully shaping the race for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination as candidates utilize the movement's language and promote its agenda while jostling to win its favor.
That's much to the delight of Democrats who are working to paint the tea party and the eventual Republican nominee as extreme.
"The tea party isn't a diversion from mainstream Republican thought. It is within mainstream Republican thought," Mitt Romney told a New Hampshire newspaper recently, defending the activists he's done little to woo, until now.
The former Massachusetts governor is starting to court them more aggressively as polls suggest he's being hurt by weak support within the movement, whose members generally favor rivals such as Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann.
Romney highlighted an outsider image at a Tea Party Express rally Sunday night in Concord. Romney may have run for office multiple times, but he has only won one election.
"I haven't spent my whole life in politics," he said. "As a matter of fact, of the people running for office, I don't know that there are many that have less years in politics than me."
Romney's shift is the latest evidence of the big imprint the tea party is leaving on the race.
Such overtures come with risks, given that more Americans are cooling to the tea party's unyielding tactics and bare-bones vision of the federal government.
After Washington's debt showdown this summer, an Associated Press-GfK poll found that 46 percent of adults had an unfavorable view of the tea party, compared with 36 percent just after last November's election.
It could give President Barack Obama and his Democrats an opening should the Republican nominee be closely aligned with the tea party.
Yet even as the public begins to sour on the movement, Romney and other GOP candidates are shrugging off past tea party disagreements to avoid upsetting activists.
That includes Perry, who faced a tea party challenger in his most recent election for governor and who has irked some tea partyers so much that they are openly trying to undercut his candidacy. Instead of fighting back, Perry often praises the tea party.
In his book "Fed Up!" Perry wrote, "We are seeing an energetic and important push by the American people — led in part by the tea party movement — to give the boot to the old-guard Washington establishment who no longer represent us."
There's a reason for the coziness. Voters who will choose the GOP nominee identify closely with the movement.
A recent AP-GfK survey showed that 56 percent of Republicans and GOP-leaning people identified themselves as tea party supporters. Also, Republicans who back the tea party place a higher priority than other Republicans on the budget deficit and taxes, issues at the center of the nomination contest.
Last year, the tea party injected the GOP with a huge dose of enthusiasm, helping it reclaim the House and end one-party rule in Washington. These days, they are firing up the campaign trail in early-voting Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
It's little wonder, then, why many of the White House aspirants are popping up at rallies by the Tea Party Express, a Sacramento, Calif.-based political committee that's in the midst of a 30-city bus tour. That tour ends Sept. 12 in Tampa, Fla., where the group will team with CNN to sponsor a nationally televised GOP debate. Every Republican candidate faring strongly in the polls is set to participate.
Some grass-roots activists will cringe. They consider the Tea Party Express uncomfortably close to the GOP establishment. Nonetheless, "it's a moment of political arrival" for the tea party, says Bruce Cain, a University of California, Berkeley political scientist.
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