Mitt Romney is the Republican front-runner in national polls and he has raised the most money, but he is lagging in support with an important Republican constituency, especially in the key early states: Tea Party activists. Tea Party leaders say Romney is not the leading candidate among their constituents, even in New Hampshire, which is considered a must-win for the former governor of neighboring Massachusetts. “I wouldn’t say Romney’s the favorite,” says Jane Aitken, coordinator for the New Hampshire Tea Party coalition. Aitken declined to say who is in the lead, as her group does not endorse candidates and even their member groups that do endorse have not yet decided who to support. But she says that from conversations with other Tea Party leaders, there is no clear favorite.
“The front-runner [among the Iowa Tea Party] would be Michele Bachmann,” says Ryan Rhodes, chairman of the Iowa Tea Party. It is a particularly bad sign for Romney that the qualities in Bachmann that Rhodes cites approvingly are precisely the inverse of Romney’s weaknesses, which are his past apostasies and countless policy reversals. “She’s been consistent. She’s not going to apologize every two seconds for doing things that are not in line with the Tea Party. She hasn’t waited to hear what some poll said.”
In polls Romney sometimes under-performs his overall numbers among self-identified Tea Party supporters. For instance, a McClatchy-Marist poll found Romney in the lead among all Republican-leaning voters but Rick Perry leading among Tea Party voters.
In the 2008 cycle Romney assiduously courted conservatives, calling for doubling the size of the prison at Guantánamo Bay and flip-flopping on gay rights, abortion rights and immigration reform (he now opposes all of them). His adoption of doctrinaire conservatism on social issues continues in this campaign. On Tuesday his campaign announced a Justice Advisory Committee, which will be co-chaired by Judge Robert Bork, the infamous extremist whose Supreme Court nomination was rejected by the Senate.
But some grassroots conservative activists think Romney has been tacking back to the center in this cycle. “He moved to the right in 2008, now he’s going to the left,” says Rhodes. Certainly, Romney has been campaigning as a front-runner, focusing on the more broadly appealing subject of jobs while staying out of the debt-ceiling debacle until a deal had been reached.
Tea Party activists also complain of lackluster outreach from the Romney campaign. “I wouldn’t say Romney has been doing very well with Tea Party conservatives,” says Rhodes. “He’s barely been talking to us.”
“He basically sticks with state Republican party events,” says Aitken. As Politico’s Ben Smith reported Monday, Romney has generally had a more spare schedule than other candidates.
The other problem for Romney is his past moderation and the fact that he seems to let his saner instincts prevail on any subject where he hasn’t yet calibrated a suitably conservative response. Romney upset many conservative—most notably Rush Limbaugh who said “Bye-bye nomination”—when Romney admitted in June that anthropogenic climate change is occurring. At the first GOP debate Romney disagreed with Tea Party phenomenon Herman Cain’s opposition to letting Muslims serve in the cabinet.