Talk with Tea Party leaders here in South Carolina and you quickly realize that the toughest job in the Mitt Romney campaign would be the assignment of doing outreach to these activists. Maybe not a mission impossible, but close.
They really want no part of Romney. And there appears to be little he could say or do between now and Jan. 21, the date of the South Carolina primary, to change that.
The Massachusetts health law Romney enacted as governor with its individual mandate called Romneycare by critics is just one of several reasons they give for their animus.
There are Romney’s policy-position switches that some have less charitably called flip flops. And there’s Romney’s failure, at least in Tea Party activists’ eyes, to reach out to them directly.
“There’s no Tea Partier that I talk to in the state or nationally that would want to promote Romney,” said Karen Martin, who leads the Spartanburg Tea Party. “Other than the people that have come out publicly and endorsed Mitt Romney and the people left over from his 2008 campaign, I do not personally know anyone that does not despise Mitt Romney and doesn’t hate the idea of him being our nominee…”
The Massachusetts health program with its individual mandate is both hated in its own right but also as a symbol of what, to Tea Party activists, is one of Romney’s greatest weaknesses, Martin said.
“Using that as a measurement of people’s distaste for him, it’s just the constant spinning that he’s had to do because of so many positions he’s held over the years and it’s really hard to pin him down on any core convictions,” Martin said.
“I think there’s one Tea Party member in Columbia who likes him,” meaning Romney, said Allen Olson, formerly the leader of the Columbia Tea Party who left to work on Newt Gingrich’s campaign. “But throughout the state, the rest of the Tea Party leaders, there’s not one who was seriously looking at him.”
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who came to power in 2010 partly on the energy of her Tea Party supporters, endorsed Romney. That apparently has not done much to change anything except the way Tea Partiers view Haley.
“We definitely feel betrayed by that,” Martin said.
“Mitt Romney, he’s a moderate, he’s actually not conservative,” said Dianne Belsom, president and founder of Laurens County Tea Party. I think most Tea Party people find that he doesn’t really represent our values.
“And he’s never made any effort, at least to my knowledge or in my personal experience, to reach out to the Tea Party in any way. Newt has done that. He’s actually been aboard the Tea Party since the beginning,” Belsom said. She added that in 2009 he was the keynote speaker in New York at one of the first Tea Party rallies in New York. Also, two years ago, Gingrich reached out and met with Tea Party leaders nationwide, Belsom included.
Another example. South Carolina’s Tea Party groups will hold their convention in Myrtle Beach on Sunday, Jan. 15, and Monday, Jan. 16. It just so happens that a Republican presidential debate will take place in the same city that Monday.
Gingrich and Rick Santorum are scheduled to speak at the convention. Michele Bachmann was on the schedule, too, but now that she has exited the race, there would appear to be no reason for her to appear. All the candidates were invited, Belsom said.
Partly for his receptivity to the Tea Party movement, Belsom’s group endorsed Gingrich in the South Carolina primary race. Belsom and other Tea Party leaders in the Palmetto State say that despite his difficulties in Iowa and national polls, Gingrich still has a very good chance of beating Romney in their state.
If Gingrich, who many view as the ultimate Washington insider, seems like an improbable figure for the very anti-establishment Tea Party to rally behind, consider this: some Tea Partiers now view Gingrich as an honorary outsider because of how thoroughly Washington insiders have been trying to politically destroy him.
“He was run out (of his speakership) by the Republican establishment, so to speak, the insiders,” Olson said. “Right now, everybody who’s coming out against him are Republican insiders. (John) Sununu, others who supposedly were working under him (as House speaker) who were part of forcing him out. So, in a sense it put Newt, even though he’s an insider, it put him on the outside, if that makes sense.”
If Gingrich or some other not-Romney fail to win the nomination, Tea Partiers say they will support Romney. (Some backed Bachmann before she bailed out.)
Their main goal is to limit President Obama to one term. But if they have to vote for the former Massachusetts governor, it will only be grudgingly.