In last week's debate in New Hampshire, Romney defended President George W. Bush's 2008 decision to spend billions to rescue banks teetering on collapse, partly because of disastrous home loans. The action was meant not just to save banks, Romney said, "but to keep the entire currency of the country worth something and to keep all the banks from closing and to make sure we didn't all lose our jobs."
Many conservatives despise the bailout, known as TARP, for Troubled Asset Relief Program. In one of their first political victories, tea party activists in Utah chanted "TARP, TARP" at then-Sen. Robert Bennett as they bounced him from the GOP ticket at a 2010 party convention. Bennett, a three-term senator with solid conservative credentials, had voted for the program.
Nonetheless, there was little commentary about Romney's TARP comments after Tuesday's debate, which focused largely on Cain's tax overhaul plan.
It may take hard-hitting TV ads to drive a bigger wedge between Romney and tea partyers, something the well-financed Perry might try soon. Such ads could go into detail, with heavy repetition, about Romney's Massachusetts health care plan, which was a partial model for Obama's 2010 federal overhaul.
Virginia-based Republican strategist Chris LaCivita says the tea party's deliberately decentralized nature makes it ill-suited to play a big role in presidential politics.
"The tea party's strength was always a state-driven or congressional district-driven level," he said. It can continue to influence targeted contests that draw comparatively small turnouts, such as the Utah GOP convention that drummed Bennett out of the party.
Moreover, LaCivita said, the tea party might choke on its own success. If it appears more like the Republican mainstream, he said, it's because tea partyers have shifted that mainstream to the right.
Largely because of their clout in the 2010 elections, LaCivita said, these activists have "changed the conversation, not only among Republicans, but everybody in Washington. Who'd have thought the Democrats would be leading with spending cuts" in deficit-reduction talks?
Those ongoing negotiations, however, could renew tensions between tea party-affiliated House Republicans and the party's more established leaders, including Speaker John Boehner. If presidential candidates are pressed for their views, Romney might find it difficult to keep appealing to independents without antagonizing tea partyers.
The Republican Party "still hasn't resolved all of its ideological internal conflicts," said John Feehery, a top aide to then-Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. "But they have agreed that they don't like Obama," he said.
Their level of intensity may determine whether Romney can keep prospering against rivals who boast stronger tea party ties.
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