DES MOINES, Iowa — Throughout the roller coaster Republican presidential contest, one thing hasn't changed: the stubborn refusal of many "tea party" supporters to warm up to Mitt Romney.
The swift rise and abrupt fall of a succession of GOP candidates has been driven in part by the restless search for a Romney alternative by that group of voters, who energized the GOP's big turnaround in 2010.
"They don't trust Mitt Romney," said Simon Conway, a Des Moines radio host popular with tea party followers. "Mitt Romney can be tea party one minute, and the next minute introduce Romneycare," the Massachusetts health care plan Romney pushed as governor.
Privately, Romney's campaign expects that tea party backers will rally around him once he starts winning primaries. Until then, he has made a carefully calibrated effort to embrace them.
He sprinkles tea party language into his stump speeches. He's wooed tea party lawmakers and organizers in private meetings. He has appeared before tea party audiences and offered an economic package with tea party-friendly elements, including a plan to slash government spending and limit future increases.
"He's talking about the things that they care about — which is what all Americans care about — how to get spending under control and how to create jobs," said Andrea Saul, a Romney campaign spokeswoman.
Many tea party followers are put off by Romney's close ties to the world of Wall Street and support for the George W. Bush administration's bailout of the financial sector.
Mark Meckler, a national co-founder of Tea Party Patriots, said that some in the movement are talking about supporting a third-party candidate if Romney becomes the GOP nominee. "One thing you can say for certain is it would cause a drop-off of enthusiasm" in the general election, he said. "How far people would take that drop-off is impossible to predict."
But others decline to go that far. Kathi Kelly, 58, a Davenport secretary, said she is weighing a vote for Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota or former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania in the Jan. 3 caucuses. She has ruled out caucusing for Romney because of his record as Massachusetts governor, notably his health care overhaul's individual mandate to have insurance.
"I'm not convinced he's a conservative," she said. Yet she would back Romney in the general election.
"I will support him wholeheartedly," Kelly said. "I don't want (President Barack) Obama to have another term. He's destroying our country."
Romney is currently favored by about 1 in 7 Republicans who strongly identify with the tea party, polls show. But his support doubles when voters are asked about their second choice for the nomination, according to a recent national opinion survey by for George Washington University and Politico.
Even more telling, strong tea party supporters — about 3 in 10 GOP voters — were just as likely as other Republicans to back Romney in a hypothetical general election matchup with Obama, according to the poll.
The coolness toward Romney from the tea party is "a temporary ceiling, not a permanent one," said Ed Goeas, a Republican pollster who helped conduct the survey.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, a favorite of tea party activists, said Romney "needs to do a better job of communicating" his record as governor, when he vetoed hundreds of items in the state budget.
"Tea partyers love that stuff," Chaffetz said. The Romney supporter is eager to tell Republicans in early-voting states that Romney is "tea party safe," he said, but the campaign has not asked him to go.
Romney's measured approach toward securing the tea party vote reflects short-run and longer-term considerations. Every lurch to the right could make it harder for him to win support next November from centrist voters who are deeply divided over the merits of the tea party movement.
Obama would clearly like to tie Romney to the movement, which, polls show, has been losing popularity. The re-election campaign titled a recent release "Mitt Romney Is Running on the Tea Party Platform." But that claim appears to be a stretch, for Romney's outreach pales compared with the likes of his rivals. Perry's latest effort to corral the tea party vote featured government-bashing rhetoric and radical changes such as cutting Congress' pay in half.
At the same time, Romney would like to sew up enough of the tea party vote to clinch the nomination quickly. His biggest challenge in that fight may be preventing Ron Paul from becoming the ultimate favorite of non-Romney voters. The Texas congressman is considered one of the fathers of the tea party movement and may be the only GOP candidate with the resources to go the distance in the primaries — and perhaps beyond.
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"Any Republican, particularly Mitt Romney, needs a two-man race against Obama, but if Romney moves away from the tea party toward the middle, he might make himself very vulnerable to the one thing he and the Republican Party cannot afford, which is a third-party challenge from the right," according to said Peter Hart, who co-directs the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll.
Tea party organizers say their supporters are at least as pragmatic as other Republicans. In interviews, tea party sympathizers in Iowa, where the first 2012 contest is just over six weeks away, say their attitudes toward Romney may well change over time.
Jeff Havenner, 60, a retired federal employee from Bettendorf, is leaning toward Perry but said he would support Romney if he were the nominee.
"Absolutely, without hesitation," he said. "Anyone who gets the (GOP) nomination gets my vote."