DENVER — Long skeptical of Mitt Romney, tea party activists are either warming up to the GOP presidential front-runner or reluctantly backing him after abandoning hope of finding a nominee they like better.
Whatever the reason, the former Massachusetts governor who is coming off of back-to-back victories in Florida and Nevada now is picking up larger shares of the tea party vote than he did when the Republican nomination fight began. And that fact alone illuminates the struggles of the nearly three-year-old movement to greatly influence its first presidential race.
“We haven’t gone away,” insisted Amy Kremer, chairwoman of the national Tea Party Express. But, in the same breath, she acknowledged lower expectations and a shift in focus to Senate races over the White House campaign. She also pleaded for patience, saying: “Anybody that thinks we are going to change things in one cycle or two cycles is
Tea party activists across the country entered their first presidential contest this year expecting to hold major sway over the Republican race following a 2010 congressional election year in which their favored candidates successfully knocked off a string of insiders in GOP primaries in Colorado and elsewhere.
The movement influenced the presidential race early on, with candidates from Romney on down parroting the movement’s language and promoting its agenda of restrained spending to curry favor with its adherents.
But the coalition was greatly fractured and plagued by infighting. It also watched as one favored candidate after another lost standing or quit the race, among them Georgia businessman Herman Cain and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann. The remaining candidates — Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul — have attributes that tea party backers like but they face huge hurdles in knocking Romney off his stride.
That’s left many in the tea party shifting focus to Romney, a candidate viewed by many as most likely to unseat President Barack Obama, even if he doesn’t vociferously bang the drum of their top issues.
“We’re warming up to Romney,” said Brian Walker, a tea party member and 62-year-old sheet metal contractor in the Colorado mountain town of Florissant. He raves about Santorum but said he’s leaning toward Romney because he wants to support the candidate he views as the likely nominee.
Such perceptions may be one of the reasons Romney has seen a bump in support among tea party followers even though the movement has long been irked by Romney’s tentative embrace of it and evolution on several issues it holds dear.