First, a disclaimer: The poll was completely unscientific. Some 160 tea partyers from around the country had gathered at the Washington headquarters of FreedomWorks, a conservative group that trains tea partyers in political organizing and advocacy. With reporters watching, the assembled activists were asked for a show of hands on the Republican presidential candidates.
The winner: Texas Gov. Rick Perry. He isn’t a candidate yet, and it’s not certain he ever will be. But Governor Perry’s “victory” is just one small indication that, were he to run, Perry would start with the goodwill of the GOP’s most energetic wing.
Michele Bachmann, the Minnesota congresswoman who formally announced her presidential campaign Monday morning in Iowa, came in a close second. Ron Paul, the libertarian-leaning Texas congressman, came in third. “Undecided” also did well.
In interviews, many tea partyers said they were glad to have many acceptable choices. In the straw poll, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was booed when his name came up, but without exception, activists said they would vote for him in the general election if he gets the Republican nomination. But some said they didn’t think Mr. Romney would get the nomination, despite his strong showing in both national polls and surveys of early nominating states.
The Republican habit of nominating the “next in line” candidate is a thing of the past, before new media made it easier for newcomers to break through, says Mr. Young, who is sporting a big “Perry 2012 President” button.
Why Perry? He has the “right attitude” toward the federal government; he believes in the 10th amendment, which reserves power to the states; and he has long executive experience, 10-1/2 years as Texas governor, Young says.
“People like cheerful candidates who can win,” he adds.
Howard Hellwinkel, a tea party activist from New York’s 19th Congressional District, north of New York City, says he’s leaning toward Congresswoman Bachmann, but isn’t firmly committed. “She’s a motivator,” he says. “She’s a good leader like Ronald Reagan – she would let her management team take care of the details.”
Ronnie Long of Concord, North Carolina, says he “really likes” pizza mogul Herman Cain, because he’s “plain-spoken and is a businessman, not a politician.” But he has reservations about Mr. Cain’s involvement with the Fed – he was chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City in the mid-90s – and is concerned that may affect his judgment.
Mr. Long adds that Perry and Bachmann both have “potential,” though he would prefer to keep social issues out of politics. Both are strong opponents of abortion.
“Pro-life, pro-choice, that’s very, very personal,” says Long, who is president of We the People North Carolina.
Another attendee, Daryn Kent-Duncan of New York City, opposes Bachmann for that reason – the congresswoman is too vocal in opposing abortion. “I’m pro-choice,” says Ms. Kent-Duncan, who extols the objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand, a foremother of the libertarian movement who supported the right to abortion.
Kent-Duncan’s assertion on abortion, born of personal experience, sparks a debate with a tea partyer standing next to her – a reminder that while many tea partyers oppose abortion, not all do. Many groups prefer just to focus on fiscal matters and steer clear of foreign policy and social issues.
One state with a big contingent at FreedomWorks was Utah, with 19 people present. Aside from the training, they had another big reason to come to Washington: put pressure on the National Republican Senatorial Committee to drop its support for Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch. As a rule the NRSC, the official party committee that works to elect Republicans to the Senate, supports incumbents seeking reelection.
There is little chance the NRSC will ditch the six-term Senator Hatch, a conservative Republican with a record of working across the aisle. But the tea partyers, with signs saying “Retire Orrin Hatch,” were eager to make a show over at the NRSC headquarters.