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.
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.
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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.”