Wary of Romney, Tea Party leaders unsure he’ll win their trust

Republican strategists see Mitt Romney’s lack of support from the Tea Party as one of his biggest weaknesses — one he might be unable to overcome due to a lack of trust from the conservative grassroots movement.

Tea Party leaders, in interviews with The Hill, expressed their doubts about the former Massachusetts governor’s conservative credentials and his courtship of their followers.

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Romney is not new to the political scene, but he “didn’t participate at all in the historic rise of the Tea Party movement” in 2010, noted Dustin Stockton, communications director for TheTeaParty.net, which hosted a GOP Twitter debate for presidential candidates this summer.

“It’s not that the Tea Party movement doesn’t think he’s conservative enough, it’s just the Tea Party movement has no ability to trust the positions he’s espousing are principled positions that he actually agrees in,” Stockton said.

Other Tea Party leaders agree.

“He’d become a Tea Party hero if he’d withdraw,” said Judson Phillips, the founder of influential group Tea Party Nation.

Phillips also slammed Romney’s “political tone-deafness” when it comes to the movement, criticizing him for a politically based motivation for belatedly reaching out to members.

“I don’t think Romney understands what the Tea Party movement is,” Phillips said. One big problem the Tea Party has with Romney is a “philosophical” one, Phillips added: “The belief that Romney really has no core values.”

Romney’s campaign did not comment.

The former governor has addressed his lack of support from Tea Party groups, which are credited with helping Republicans win back the House in 2010.

“If the Tea Party is for keeping government small and spending down and helping us create jobs, then hey, I’m for the Tea Party,” Romney said, when asked in an August debate whether he considered himself a “card-carrying member” of the movement.

Romney also participated in a New Hampshire rally hosted by the Tea Party Express in August. FreedomWorks, another large Tea Party-affiliated group, protested his inclusion and warned that Romney was an “establishment candidate” watering down the brand.

But Amy Kremer, co-chairwoman of Tea Party Express, doesn’t think it’s too late for Romney to win Tea Party support. 

She noted the former governor made an effort to put campaign staff or volunteers at every rally stop during a two-week series hosted by her organization.

“I haven’t made up my mind [yet],” Kremer said. “And I think I am truly representative of the people of this movement.”

Healthcare will remain a huge stumbling block to Romney’s ability to win Tea Party support, since one impetus for the formation of the movement was President Obama’s healthcare reform legislation. Critics point out the legislation Romney signed in Massachusetts has similar provisions, including the controversial individual mandate.

Phillips, however, doesn’t think the Tea Party will ever rally around Romney as the GOP nominee.

“Push comes to shove, you get into the ballot box and you have your choice, him or Obama — a lot of folks will hold their noses and push the button for Romney,” he said, but predicted that a wave of Tea Party volunteers would focus their efforts elsewhere, such as working to help the GOP retake the Senate.

Republican strategist Ron Bonjean said a lack of Tea Party support is Romney’s biggest weakness as a candidate, especially in comparison to Texas Gov. Rick Perry, his chief competition in the polls.

“Tea Party support is largely lining up behind Perry right now because they identify with him,” Bonjean said. “Romney’s strategy to cut into that is to highlight Perry’s inelectability.”

Chipping away at Perry’s support might not swing the Tea Party vote to Romney, however.

“The people in this movement are all about individual freedom,” said Kremer, who predicts that most self-identified Tea Party voters are still making up their minds and have not necessarily coalesced around Romney or Perry.

“We believe we’re going to be the ones to decide who the next Republican candidate’s going to be,” Kremer said. “They can’t win this nomination without the support of this movement.”