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Tea Party Tally

What has the tea party wrought? Tea Party Tally keeps tabs on tea party-affiliated candidates whether they soar or stumble ­ and the movement's effect on the country and Election 2012.

Mitt Romney greets supporters after a rally in Naples, Fla., on Sunday. (Warren Richey/The Christian Science Monitor)

Newt Gingrich the tea party favorite? Not necessarily in Florida. (+video)

By Staff writer / 01.30.12

Amid a sea of Romney supporters, there it flies: a bright yellow “Don’t Tread on Me” flag, the banner of the tea party movement – at a rally Sunday in downtown Naples, Fla., for the former governor of Massachusetts.

“I know that’s a contradiction,” says Cheryl Blackburn, the flag-waver. “But in the last few weeks I’ve decided [Mitt Romney] is the one to follow. He has the integrity, and when all is said and done, he’s the most electable.”

No major tea party leaders are backing Mr. Romney, who is seen as too willing to compromise on conservative principles. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is the candidate boasting the largest roster of tea party leaders in his camp. But the low-tax, small-government movement is highly decentralized, and among rank-and-file tea partyers, it’s anything goes. 

IN PICTURES: Tea party politics

A straw poll of Florida tea party supporters taken Sunday night, following a tele-forum hosted by the Tea Party Patriots with three GOP presidential candidates, showed Mr. Gingrich ahead with 35 percent of the vote. Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania came in second with 31 percent, and Romney was third with 18 percent. Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who is not campaigning in Florida and did not take part in the tele-forum, got 11 percent.

But more-scientific polls of likely Florida GOP primary voters show a different picture. A Quinnipiac poll released Monday shows Romney beating Gingrich among self-described tea party supporters, 40 percent to 35 percent (and winning among all Florida Republicans 43 percent to 29 percent). Although an NBC/Marist poll released over the weekend shows Gingrich slightly ahead of Romney among Florida tea party supporters, 36 percent to 34 percent, it also found Romney winning in Florida overall 42 percent to 27 percent.

The disparities may come in who self-identifies as a tea party supporter. Anyone can tell a pollster that they support tea party principles, but it’s the real die-hards who serve in leadership positions, take part in tele-forums, and attend tea party rallies.

Byron Donalds, a member of the leadership council of the Naples Tea Party, is still deciding between Gingrich and Mr. Santorum – and did not go near the Romney rally on Sunday.

“I believe Newt is brilliant,” says Mr. Donalds, who is running for Congress. “What we’re concerned about is, will he be disciplined enough, both in the campaign and in the White House.”

Donalds says he likes Santorum’s vision for the country but isn’t sure he can get through to voters in time. Regardless of what happens in Florida’s primary Tuesday, Donalds does not think Gingrich should drop out. And he is not concerned that Gingrich’s vow Sunday to “go all the way to the convention” will leave the party divided and unable to rally effectively around its nominee. After all, he says, “It helped Barack Obama to have a long primary against Hillary Clinton in ’08.”

Tea party activists see in Romney another John McCain – the Republican Party’s unsuccessful nominee in 2008. Like Romney, Senator McCain had run before unsuccessfully for the nomination, and he did not excite the party’s base.

The tea party movement, which formed soon after Mr. Obama took office, has provided a loose structure to conservative activism, but is aggressively decentralized. Still, with so many groups sprinkled around the state, it is a ready source of activism for a candidate seeking to tap into the movement’s energy.

Some tea party leaders see Romney as missing a big opportunity by not wooing tea partyers aggressively.

"Romney just totally ignored the tea party," Everett Wilkinson, chairman of the South Florida Tea Party, told the Sun-Sentinel. "Most of us are going with Newt, just because he's got an outreach program. His people are actively trying to get you to back him, making calls and setting up meetings and rallies.”

If Romney wins the Florida primary without the largest share of tea party supporters, it will be a first for this primary season. So far, exit polls show that the candidates who won the Iowa caucuses, New Hampshire primary, and South Carolina primary also won the most self-identified tea partyers.

The fact that three different candidates won the first three contests gives Gingrich more fuel for his argument that he should not give up if he loses Florida. It has been a volatile GOP primary season, and tea party supporters are far from monolithic.

Some, in fact, thoroughly reject the argument that Gingrich best represents their movement.

“Gingrich is a total hypocrite,” says Robert Rappaport, wearing a Tea Party Patriots T-shirt at the Romney rally in Naples. He’s for Santorum, but wanted to see what Romney had to say for himself.

“When Gingrich went after Romney on Bain Capital, I wrote him off,” says Mr. Rappaport, referring to the private-equity firm that Romney cofounded and that Gingrich has attacked for being “exploitive.” Rappaport also doesn’t think that Gingrich’s idea of setting up moon colonies makes any sense, given the nation’s huge debt. “And,” he adds, “I’m a space nut.”

IN PICTURES: Tea party politics

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Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich attends the South Carolina Tea Party Convention in Myrtle Beach, S.C., Monday. (Eric Thayer/REUTERS)

Is tea party 'dead' if Newt Gingrich fails in South Carolina?

By Staff writer / 01.20.12

Since it was incorporated into the presidential primary calendar in 1980, South Carolina has been an important tool for the Republican establishment.

Coming after nominating contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, the reliably conservative Southern state has served as a check on those states' sometimes-eclectic tendencies, making sure an "establishment" candidate gets a chance to gain momentum. Indeed, since 1980, it has picked every eventual Republican nominee.

This year, however, South Carolina could do the exact opposite, upending the momentum of the "electable" candidate (Mitt Romney) and resuscitating the campaign of a man few in the GOP establishment want (Newt Gingrich). It would be a reversal potentially with significant meaning for the almost-forgotten tea party. 

Barely more than a year after it changed the face of Washington in historic midterm elections, the tea party has yet to leave any clear mark on the GOP nominating process. Iowa and New Hampshire have given momentum to Mr. Romney, whose perceived ideological squishiness is anathema to the tea party insurgency. The Jan. 31 primary in Florida could virtually seal his nomination.

But standing in his way is South Carolina, a tea party heartland where four of five congressmen, as well as the governor, are tea party supporters. As a result, South Carolina is emerging as a litmus test for the movement: If the tea party can't flex its political muscle here, then where can it?

“South Carolina has become the only possible firewall for the conservative base that hopes to stop the front-runner,” writes Matt Bai in a New York Times Magazine article. “If the discontented activists who stormed the party in 2010 can’t find a way to take out the establishment’s chosen nominee here, of all places, then they might as well slap those Romney/Rubio bumper stickers on their S.U.V.’s now and get it over with.”

A Romney win would be read read as a sign that the tea party is now a spent political force, or – perhaps even worse, to some tea partyers – has abandoned its principles to back an "electable" candidate. If a surging Mr. Gingrich, who has coveted the tea party mantle, manages to win, though, it could suggest that the movement retains some of its antiestablishment mojo. 

To be sure, Romney's inability to pull away from the field despite overwhelming establishment support might be one sign of how the tea party ethos has infused the GOP primary season, both in South Carolina and elsewhere. But the movement's inability so far to coalesce around any alternative has made Romney's path to the nomination easier, raising questions about whether the tea party has lost its influence. 

“It is almost impossible to believe and downright sickening to accept that in light of the clear mandate of the tea party that the GOP stands on the cusp of returning to ‘establishmentarianism,’ ” writes conservative columnist Kevin McCullough in an opinion piece for Fox News. “But it appears that for all the big talk, tens of thousands of local rallies, and the single largest non-inaugural event to ever occur on our nation’s mall, the tea party has died. Which is sad.”

For those seeking to stop a Romney nomination, however, South Carolina is an ideal stop for the campaign. Public Policy Polling's Thursday survey of likely Republican voters in the South Carolina primary found Gingrich had a 6 percentage point lead on Romney, 35-29. One reason: Tea party voters favored him, 46-21 percent.

In South Carolina, the tea party vote matters. A recent Winthrop poll found that 61 percent of South Carolinians approved of the tea party, compared with 20 percent of Americans nationwide.

“The polling that we do in states all over the country tells us that in Southern states most people who say they are Republicans basically embrace the same general philosophy as the tea party,” says Matt Towery, CEO of the Atlanta-based polling firm InsiderAdvantage.

The question is whether voters on the tea party fringe – those who, Mr. Towery says, simply have a "tea party state of mind" – will be willing to back Romney because he is seen as having a better chance of defeating Mr. Obama in November. 

“My overall impression has been that the tea party itself, in terms of an actual organized movement, is not that big," says Towery. "So the idea that a tea party group is going to tell most South Carolinians how to vote, that's been overblown by the national media.”

It raises the prospect of a tea party that behaves differently in local, state, and even congressional elections – where national "electability" is irrelevant – versus presidential elections. Tea party organizers across the country say they continue to revamp local GOP party structures in their image, laying groundwork for what they see as the more important goal of taking over state legislatures and boosting their role in Congress.

But a compromise with the party establishment on Romney could water down the intensity of the pugnacious grass-roots movement.

“In 2010, the Tea Party appeared to help Republican candidates, as best as we can tell with the available data,” writes political scientist John Sides on The Monkey Cage blog. “But it’s a much more open question whether the Tea Party’s energy and enthusiasm can be mustered for 2012, especially if Romney is the nominee.”

Already, some political analysts see signs of the tea party moderating its insurgent ways. In South Carolina, many local leaders have been courted by candidates like Gingrich and have risen as power brokers in their own right, with all the attendant problems – including the need for compromise – that participation brings, says Jeffrey Peake, a political scientist at Clemson University.

“The interesting and really odd thing here is that, yes, the tea party is frustrated with a Republican party it sees as talking out of both sides of its mouth,” says Professor Peake. But at the same time, activists have come to realize that “you cannot be this ideological and still govern effectively.”

In the end, the rise of the “tea party state of mind” alone – which has made this primary season such a rough ride for Romney – may ultimately prove the most powerful contribution to the nation's political direction, activists say.

Then again, with Gingrich showing signs of a come-from-behind victory in South Carolina Saturday, the tea party might yet gate crash the GOP's hoped-for coronation. 

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