Tea party becomes force in GOP race

Posted: September 05, 2011

BERLIN, N.H. - The tea party is forcefully shaping the race for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination as candidates parrot the movement's language and promote its agenda while jostling to win its favor.

That's much to the delight of Democrats who are working to paint the tea party and the eventual Republican nominee as extreme. "The tea party isn't a diversion from mainstream Republican thought. It is within mainstream Republican thought," Mitt Romney told a New Hampshire newspaper recently, defending the activists he has done little to woo, until now.

The former Massachusetts governor is starting to court them more aggressively as polls suggest he's being hurt by weak support within the movement, whose members generally favor Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota.

Romney's shift is the latest evidence of the big imprint the tea party is leaving on the race.

Such overtures come with risks, given that more Americans are cooling to the tea party's unyielding tactics and bare-bones vision of the federal government. After Washington's debt showdown this summer, an AP-GfK poll found that 46 percent of adults had an unfavorable view of the tea party, compared with 36 percent just after last November's election.

Yet even as the public begins to sour on the movement, Romney and other GOP candidates are shrugging off past tea party disagreements to avoid upsetting activists.

That includes Perry, who faced a tea-party challenger in his most recent election for governor and who has irked some tea partiers so much that they are openly trying to undercut his candidacy. Instead of fighting back, Perry often praises the tea party.

Five months before the first voting in the nomination fight, a Gallup survey of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents last week found Perry pulling strong support from voters who identify themselves as tea-party supporters, with 35 percent, followed by Romney and Bachmann at 14 percent. That may help explain why Romney decided to speak Sunday at a Tea Party Express rally in New Hampshire and appear Monday at a forum in South Carolina hosted by GOP Sen. Jim DeMint.

DeMint, who oversees a political committee that has supported tea-party candidates, says the tea party is "one of the best things that's happened to our country."

Romney, Perry, Bachmann, and others in the 2012 race planned to appear at DeMint's event.

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