2012 Republican presidential hopefuls getting a jump on the Tea Party courtship

Three potential Republican contenders for the 2012 presidential nomination would have higher hurdles to clear to win the Tea Party vote in the primary, leaders of the movement say.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich each are met with a degree of suspicion by Tea Partiers, and all three have taken early steps to address those voters’ concerns.

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Tea Party groups — whose loosely organized members threw their sometimes-considerable weight behind conservative challengers of centrist or establishment Republicans in the fall campaign — have already begun strategizing on ways to affect the race for the 2012 GOP nomination.

They are planning debates and candidate forums, organizing in key primary states and even forming political action committees (PACs).

And Republicans — particularly those whose relationship with the grassroots activists isn't the coziest — are mindful of the Tea Party’s potential impact.

When Romney announced his opposition to the tax-cut package President Obama negotiated with Senate Republicans this month, for instance, he aligned himself with other would-be conservative contenders for the nomination — former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Sen. Jim DeMint (S.C.) and Rep. Mike Pence (Ind.) — who are looked upon with more favor by the Tea Party.

"I can't say what was in his head, but it sure looks like an effort to reach out to the Tea Party movement," Mark Meckler, the national coordinator of Tea Party Patriots, said of Romney's effort.

"I don't think anyone's disqualified. I think the two that would have the longest row to hoe would be Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich," Meckler added, anecdotally recalling conversations with many self-identified Tea Party voters.

Meckler said DeMint and Pence, by contrast, excite Tea Party voters much more.

The fiscally conservative Club for Growth consistently criticized Huckabee during his 2008 presidential campaign. The former governor also tried recently to distance himself from previous comments seeming to indicate support for cap-and-trade climate regulation of the sort Democrats pushed in the 111th Congress.

"Those who are now breathlessly trotting out their attacks that I supported mandatory cap and trade have simply not done their homework," Huckabee said in a statement at the time.

Gingrich's personal history and occasional alliances with high-profile Democrats also have prompted concern among some conservatives. During the past two years, he partnered with the Rev. Al Sharpton on an education initiative and with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) on climate change.

But he's also consistently opposed President Obama and congressional Democrats, and he helped groom many of the Republican congressional candidates who made possible the Nov. 2 GOP takeover of the House.

When Tea Party voters do make their choice, they'll have to consider candidates’ electability along with their fidelity to conservative principles. That debate played out in the 2010 congressional races with mixed results: Tea Party favorites such as Rand Paul (Ky.) and Marco Rubio (Fla.) won their Senate races, while nominees like Christine O'Donnell in Delaware lost in embarrassing fashion.

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), the leader of the House Tea Party Caucus, said Tea Party voters will look for a nominee who's serious about the constitution, balancing the budget and keeping taxes low.

“I think it's very early in the process," she explained. "I think the more important conversation for the next 12 months are why this president's policies are bad for the country, and why we should not have a second term for the Obama administration."

Despite wooing from some would-be White House contenders, Tea Party groups haven’t taken an explicit stance on any of them — in part because none has even announced he or she is running.

"I don't think there's anybody we should rule out, or anybody we should rule in," said Amy Kremer, the chairwoman of Tea Party Express. "I think it's a completely level playing field."

Some possible candidates — Govs. Tim Pawlenty (Minn.), Mitch Daniels (Ind.) and Haley Barbour (Miss.) as well as Sen. John Thune (S.D) — enjoy a relatively blank slate with Tea Party voters, while Palin and DeMint already have strong Tea Party support.

The groups are already laying the groundwork for future vetting of the different candidates, though.

Tea Party Express recently announced it would partner with CNN to host a GOP presidential debate next year, probably the first time in the campaign cycle candidates will face questioning of specific interest to the Tea Party.

Other Tea Party groups are quick to note that Kremer's organization doesn't speak for the entire movement and are planning their own events, as well.

Tea Party Patriots, another one of the larger organizations, is planning an American Policy Summit in February to which all presidential candidates will be invited, according to Meckler.

FreedomWorks, another Tea Party organizing group connected to former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas), is setting up a PAC going into 2012 to directly assist candidates, according to Brendan Steinhauser, the group’s director of federal and state campaigns.

But even candidates who cozy up to the conservative activists might not expect an immediate endorsement from some of the heavy-hitting groups — if at all.

Kremer said she didn't know if Tea Party Express would endorse, and Meckler said it was too soon to say. Even if their groups do endorse, they agreed, voters might be less inclined to follow their lead.

FreedomWorks could endorse "at a later stage," according to Steinhauser, when the GOP field has narrowed to fewer choices. State-level endorsements in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina could be more consequential in the race for the nomination. In the meanwhile, Tea Party activists would try to take greater control of the "levers of power" within the Republican establishment.

Tea Partiers would also look to electability, he said.

"I think people are going to be very prudent about this. Who do we have who can beat Obama that agrees with us on 75 to 80 percent of the issues?" Steinhauser said. "We're going to have a lot of hard choices to make as a movement."