WASHINGTON — Tea party activists are injecting into the 2012 GOP presidential primary an element of antiestablishment volatility that could hurt Mitt Romney's possible bid while benefiting a fast-growing crop of conservative candidates, political observers say.
"It is wide open," former House majority leader Dick Armey, one of the leaders of the tea party movement, said of the potential field of candidates. In a twist of GOP tradition, the nominee could be someone Americans know little about, he said.
"The defining influence electorally in America is we are tired of big-shot insiders taking care of themselves and one another," said Armey, chairman of FreedomWorks, which seeks to mobilize conservative voters.
In the most typical Republican path to the nomination, party insiders all but anoint an establishment candidate early, then primary voters confirm the candidate. Romney, who ran strongly in the 2008 primaries, has been widely portrayed as the establishment front-runner.
But that path could be thrown off course as tea party activists try to build upon their influence in the midterm elections and make further inroads into the GOP power structure, analysts say.
Romney did reach out to the tea party movement by donating to a number of its nominees in this year's congressional elections but that was sometimes after they had defeated mainstream Republicans. Some conservative insurgents distrust him because of the Massachusetts health care plan he helped engineer while governor, although Romney has disputed assertions that the program served as a model for President Barack Obama's national plan.
Romney's decision to interject himself in a Utah primary also has hurt him among tea party movement activists. Although Romney has lived in Utah and is viewed as widely popular there, Republicans at a state convention booed his endorsement of Sen. Bob Bennett over tea party movement candidate, Mike Lee, who went on to win the nomination and the seat.
"I think he's done," David Kirkham, a tea party movement leader in Utah who was at the state convention, said of Romney. He predicted tea party movement followers across the country would reject Romney as too strongly linked to the party establishment.
But some analysts say the extent of the tea party movement's influence on the GOP presidential primaries is unclear after the mixed results of the midterm elections Tuesday. The movement's high-profile losses ?— especially Sharron Angle's failure to knock off Senate majority leader Harry Reid in Nevada, as well as defeats in Colorado and Delaware Senate races — have strengthened contentions among party regulars that electing a candidate strongly affiliated with the tea party could hurt GOP chances of capturing the White House.
Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, said he had thought Romney's hopes would be dashed by a strong showing of the movement in the midterms. But after analyzing tea party losses in Senate contests, Sabato reached a different conclusion.
"Now mainstream Republicans will rethink the nomination, and that will help Romney and some others," he said.
Such an approach could limit the prospects of those closely aligned to the tea party movement, particularly Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor, whose protégés in Delaware and Nevada, and possibly Alaska, fumbled chances to help the GOP retake the Senate.
Romney heads into his expected second White House bid with several advantages: high name recognition, a strong national political network, the potential to self-finance a presidential run, and a legion of grateful Republican candidates whom he showered with campaign contributions. He is considered the front-runner by some of his potential competitors.
He must, however, carve a path somewhere between the powers in the Republican Party — the tea party movement and the establishment.
A national poll of Republicans released Thursday by CNN underscored the fluidity of the White House contest. It indicated that Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, is the favorite of many religious conservatives, leading a speculative field with 21 percent, followed by Romney at 20 percent and Palin at 14 percent. But such polls are often little more than registers of name recognition; four years ago, the leader was Rudy Giuliani, the former New York City mayor, who went nowhere in the primaries.
Romney declined to comment about the presidential race.
His spokesman, Eric Fehrnstrom, noted that the former governor has worked hard behind the scenes to elect Republicans in the midterms, with his political action committee donating $1.1 million to 500 candidates and organizations this year and with Romney visiting 32 states.
In recent days, Romney has stepped up his visibility, appearing on Fox News and authoring an op-ed for The Washington Post in which he laid out what may be a key element of his campaign message. He wrote that the United States' own "government is a greater threat to America in 2010 than China was in 1972" — an anti-Washington message that is in line with tea party movement thinking.
Several candidates, however, are hoping they can vault ahead of Romney either by positioning themselves as leaders of tea party-like efforts or by demonstrating they have taken actions at the state and congressional level that are in line with the movement.
Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House, who has courted the tea party movement and plans to decide in February whether to seek the presidential nomination, said a successful nominee will probably be one who can be a spokesman for a grass-roots movement, not just someone with his or her own agenda. "There is no single personal candidate's ambition who will be adequate for the scale of what's coming," he said.
Palin faces the challenge of having high negative ratings at this early stage. She was viewed unfavorably by 49 percent of those surveyed by CNN. Kirkham, the Utah tea party organizer, said a number of tea party leaders view her as a potential kingmaker in the nomination process instead of a contender.
While a number of Palin's picks won election Tuesday, some Senate candidates most identified with her lost, including Christine O'Donnell in Delaware and Angle. In her home state of Alaska, ballots are being counted to determine whether write-in candidate Lisa Murkowski beat Palin's pick, Joe Miller.
Several potential presidential candidates could come from the ranks of Republican governors who are known for their fiscal discipline and thus can make claims to fidelity to the tea party movement, including Mitch Daniels of Indiana, Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, and Haley Barbour of Mississippi. A relatively unknown candidate could appear on the scene.
Pawlenty has been particularly aggressive in laying the groundwork for a potential bid, establishing a political action committee in the first-primary state of New Hampshire and visiting there six times in the past year. Pawlenty said Romney is the putative front-runner, but added it would be a mistake to discount Palin's power.
"I think so much of it depends on who else is running," he said. "If Sarah Palin were to get into the race, that could change the dynamic a lot."