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GOP 2012 race: Does it boil down to 'purity' vs. electability?

If the moderate Mitt Romney gets the nomination in the GOP 2012 race, the question is whether he could marshall the tea party movement's energy.

By Staff writer / June 28, 2011

Possible Republican candidates include (l. to r.) Ron Paul, Jon Huntsman Jr., Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, Tim Pawlenty, and Mitt Romney. Rick Perry (far r.) has not declared his candidacy, but has tea party fans.

Photo Illustration by John Kehe/Staff, Photos by AP and Reuters

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Washington

Already, the outlines of a possible showdown between former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann are coming into focus in the GOP presidential nomination race.

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It is, of course, way too early to predict that with any certainty. The field is still forming; Texas Gov. Rick Perry might jump in, a potential game-changer. And most Republican voters are not firm in their choice of candidate – if they have chosen at all. But Congresswoman Bachmann made a strong showing in the first major Iowa poll, released last weekend, and Mr. Romney has built a solid lead in the other early nominating state – New Hampshire – and in national polls.

For now, though, it’s easier to see Romney’s path to the nomination. He is organized, raising lots of money, and, as a repeat candidate, less likely to make rookie mistakes than are the newbies. So with about a half-year to go before the first nominating contests, conservative activists and Republican leaders are beginning to contemplate the possibility that Romney, a relative moderate, could win the nomination, while grass-roots energy lies with the conservative tea party.

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How damaging could that disconnect be? Look at what happened with Sen. John McCain, the losing GOP nominee in 2008, who was not a down-the-line conservative, says Matt Kibbe, president and chief executive officer of FreedomWorks, a Washington-based outfit that advises tea party groups.

"The same might happen with Romney," says Mr. Kibbe. With Mr. McCain, "you had a lack of enthusiasm, which meant less work, fewer people bothering to show up on Election Day at the margin. That's the reality if Republicans nominate a candidate who's not exciting or even acceptable to fiscal conservatives who do so much of the work."

In Florida, both an early primary state and a critical swing state in the general election, one active tea party group is focused mostly on local tax issues and on ousting the state's Democratic senator, Bill Nelson, who is up for reelection. But the presidential race is never far from thought.

"We have high hopes a couple of other people will jump in the race," says Eric West, chairman of the St. Augustine (Fla.) Tea Party, listing Governor Perry, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan as possibilities. "Overall, I would say we're not pleased with who the anointed front-runner is right now."

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