Keith Srakocic, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney's early success in the Republican presidential race is challenging the tea party's clout. Will it continue to pull the GOP sharply right? Will it slowly fade? Or merge with mainstream Republican elements in a nod to pragmatism, something it's hardly known for?
On the surface, Romney's strength seems at odds with the tea party's fiery success in ousting Republicans seen as compromisers, and in making the House GOP caucus more ideological, even when its leaders plead for flexibility.
Romney defends the government's 2008 bank bailouts, plus the mandated health insurance he initiated as Massachusetts governor. He says he can work with "good Democrats." Although he later changed, Romney once supported abortion rights, gun control and gay rights.
These positions run counter to the beliefs and goals of many tea party activists scattered throughout the country. Yet Romney is faring better in polls, fundraising and debates than are contenders with stronger tea party credentials, including Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum and Rick Perry.
Several Republican strategists, and even some tea party leaders, say they aren't surprised or alarmed. Their overarching goal is to defeat President Barack Obama next year, they say, and if Romney is best-positioned to do that, they'll endure his shortcomings.
"The perception that tea partyers are ideological purists is wrong," said Sal Russo, a long-time Republican strategist in California and a leader of the Tea Party Express. "We are a broad-based movement," he said, "and we are looking to win in 2012."
Danny Diaz, a Washington-based Republican strategist unaligned with any presidential candidates, agrees.
"The tea party movement is an anti-Washington movement," he said. While Perry and Herman Cain might make a more dynamic claim to that mantle, he said, Romney has never lived in Washington, and tea party activists won't rule him out.
"Many of them are pragmatists," Diaz said. They desperately want to oust Obama, he said, and "they need a candidate that's electable."
A CBS-New York Times poll found that tea partyers are more satisfied with the GOP presidential field than are Republicans in general. Cain was the top choice among tea party activists, with Romney second.
Some campaign veterans see bigger problems ahead for Romney.
Polls of Republicans show Romney holding steady at about 25 percent, while Bachmann, Perry and Cain take turns making surges. "That tells me that 75 percent of the primary voters would really rather have someone else," said GOP lobbyist and consultant Mike McKenna.
Many tea party activists have little or no loyalty to the Republican Party, and McKenna predicts big problems next year if they feel their conservative values were sacrificed for political expediency. "Romney would cause enormous numbers of tea party-type voters to simply not show on game day," he said.
The chief question, he said, "is whether one candidate will be able to aggregate the anti-Romney Republicans before it is too late." Perry seems the likeliest choice, McKenna said, "but the clock is ticking."
Jenny Beth Martin of Atlanta, who is active with Tea Party Patriots, said several groups are having informal talks about whether they should try to coalesce behind an alternative to Romney. Tea partyers cherish their independence, she said, and "over the next eight to 10 weeks, it'll be interesting to see how it all shapes up."
Conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh repeatedly criticized Romney on his radio show last week. "Romney is not a conservative," he said. "The Republican base doesn't want Romney."
For now, Romney seems willing to run some risks, hoping to attract independent voters who will be crucial in the 2012 general election.
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