Meckler’s statement was intended to rebut the recent suggestion of a Tea Party Express leader that the movement would support any Republican over Obama. The testy exchange between supposed allies exposes a fundamental truth about the tea party movement: There are various groups at the local, state and national levels that have little organization and often have clashing priorities, even in the same region.
“Contrary to what the perception might be about tea party activists, I sense this great patience in trying to work to discern who the best candidate is to promote,” said Ovide Lamontagne, who nearly rode the tea party wave to a Senate primary victory in New Hampshire last fall and emerged as a leading conservative voice in the first-in-the-nation primary state. “And that is the person who is the most conservative who can win. Winning is part of the equation — much stronger than it has been in the past.”
Earlier this year Lamontagne openly questioned whether Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), whose résumé reads like a tea party dream candidate, could be victorious in a general election. His emphasis on viability suggests that Romney, consistently at the head of national polls among likely Republican voters, could win over tea party activists in the Northeast, despite the health care concern.
But that may not be the case in Iowa.
The Hawkeye State’s grass-roots conservatives are more likely to support former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain or Bachmann, according to Michael Fiala, a member of the North Iowa Tea Party and a conservative marketing consultant. Fiala said activists are not worried about the conventional wisdom or polling that suggests those candidates would have a difficult path to the GOP nomination or a general election victory.
“The tea people I know who have stayed active in politics for more than a decade, they remember Ronald Reagan being blown off as a second-tier movie actor, and they remember Jimmy Carter being blown off as a peanut farmer,” Fiala said. “From that perspective, Herman Cain has just as good a shot as anyone else, but he can’t make any mistakes.”
He said social or fiscal issues would trump viability issues, depending on which part of the state the activists hail from. But there seems to be unanimous concern with Romney’s health care policies, Fiala said.
It’s not clear how much influence Iowa’s tea partyers will hold in the February caucuses because the movement did not exist when Hawkeye State Republicans chose former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee as their favorite in 2008. (Romney came in second.)
The differing priorities in the key early states means that courting the tea party movement is no simple task. But the candidates are trying.
“We meet with tea party activists when we travel around the country. And we’ll certainly continue to court them,” Conant said of Pawlenty, who was one of just a handful of hopefuls who appeared at a Tea Party Patriots convention in February.
Indeed, Pawlenty is among at least six presidential hopefuls to participate in an Iowa Tea Party bus tour beginning this week. (For more information, see the sidebar.) Romney, who has done little campaigning in Iowa so far and who will skip the crucial Ames straw poll this summer, is noticeably absent from the bus tour’s roster.
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