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.
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