Time is running out for tea party leaders hoping to shake up the GOP presidential nominating process.
In less than two months, voters in Iowa and New Hampshire will start to make their choices, and establishment pressures seem increasingly likely to prevail.
Tea party rhetoric has dominated pre-primary jockeying, but conservative activists may decide to sacrifice ideological purity and settle for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in hopes of nominating a candidate who could actually win.
“Political reality sets in for most people who genuinely want change,” said Brad Card, a lobbyist at Dutko Grayling who has already given more than $15,000 this cycle to Republican candidates, including Romney. “Mitt Romney is the one steady in the race — the one comfort blanket.”
The tea party at first seemed to be considering an anyone-but-Romney approach, with Rep. Michele Bachmann, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and businessman Herman Cain each generating enthusiasm from that crowd at different points this year.
The Tea Party Express invested roughly $500,000 in a pro-Perry ad campaign earlier this month. But Sal Russo, the Republican operative behind Tea Party Express, said his donors could rally around Romney. “The tea party people are far more committed to winning than they are to ideological purity — contrary to perception that the tea party is unrealistic,” he said.
While longtime political observers said the field is all but settled, many of the self-identified leaders of the tea party movement are determined to influence the party’s choice.
FreedomWorks, the conservative group led by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas), is leading an effort to get all the “anti-Romney candidates” to sign the Contract From America, a list of tea party priorities that nearly 70 sitting Members of Congress signed in the runup to the midterm elections.
The Washington-based organization, one of the most powerful claiming the tea party banner, has asked visitors to its website to rate budget-cutting proposals. So far, nearly all 40,000 respondents have demanded the repeal of President Barack Obama’s health care law, which was based on the health care plan Romney signed as governor. Romney has said he would repeal Obama’s signature measure, but his rivals attack him by pointing out that he has not always been consistent on the issue of a federal health care mandate.
“If you want to say you’re a tea party presidential candidate, well, where do you stand on these things that are important to tea partyers?” said Dean Clancy, the legislative counsel and vice president of health policy at FreedomWorks.