RENO, Nev. - Tea Party activists, long dismissive of Mitt Romney, insist that most of the movement’s legions will back him if he continues to surge toward nomination, with a few already urging Republicans of all kinds to unite now to defeat President Obama.
The slowly building shift in outlook on Romney is by no means universal or set in stone. Some activists still express hope that Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, or Ron Paul will regain traction.
Yet, groups previously opposed to Romney are beginning to prepare their members to embrace the former Massachusetts governor as their best shot at defeating an incumbent president they distrust even more.
The Tea Party is a splintered movement with no elected leadership, which makes it hard to generalize about how supporters are leaning, or whether the trend will hold. But interviews with activists around the country suggests a shift toward Romney is underway since his impressive win in Florida.
Even the person who has been running the “Anybody But Mitt’’ website has climbed aboard, grudgingly conceding that it is time to end the very public war within the party and make sure ideology does not trump unity.
“After the primary in Florida, it’s over. He’s the nominee. You can grouse about it and whine about it - as I’ve been doing for months - but the fact is he’s the nominee now,’’ said Michael Graham, the website pundit and a conservative talk radio personality at Boston-based 96.9-FM. “For Republican primary voters, even the most conservative who are very unhappy with Mitt, there’s something binding us all together, and that is ending the presidency of Barack Obama.’’
Around the country, Tea Party activists voiced similar sentiments. They had long hoped a conservative alternative could inspire them and give them a reason not to support Romney. At one point, they rallied behind Michele Bachmann, then jumped to Rick Perry. When he faltered, Herman Cain surged. All three are now former candidates.
Jack Rogers, a lay Baptist minister in suburb outside Minneapolis and a co-coordinator of the North Metro Tea Party Patriots, had favored Bachmann. “In reality, the Tea Party people I know . . . are going to support any candidate who stands against Barack Obama,’’ he said.
One reason for the gradual acceptance may be that while Romney has long been distrusted by Tea Party activists, his message of smaller government, less debt, and fewer regulations has resonated with some supporters.
Romney has also adopted a far scrappier tone in recent weeks, sharpening his criticisms of Obama and Gingrich as he tries to demonstrate that a measured businessman can still provide some of the fervor that animates the activists.
Sal Russo, the cofounder and chief strategist of the California-based Tea Party Express, likens the Tea Party movement to an iceberg. At the tip are the loyalists who show up at rallies, toting signs and wearing Colonial-era hats as they loudly pronounce their support for the most conservative candidates, he said. But the majority of supporters are mostly hidden and probably view Romney more favorably than those who seek attention.
“At the end of the day, whoever becomes the nominee will have wide support from Tea Party people,’’ he said. “It doesn’t make sense to conclude that Tea Party people wouldn’t be enthusiastic about Mitt Romney.’’
Early in his campaign, Romney avoided reaching out to Tea Party activists, who have been vociferous critics of his political flexibility and his health care law in Massachusetts. But by last fall, he began trying to appeal to the movement, appearing at forums and attending a Tea Party Express rally in New Hampshire.
That appearance triggered protests from FreedomWorks, a Washington-based group that has been at the forefront of the Tea Party movement. The group protested Romney’s inclusion, and several groups staged a counter-rally.
That distrust can still be found in pockets of the movement. Sarah Palin has supported Gingrich and accused Romney of using his better-funded operation to spread a “false narrative’’ to win Florida. Cain endorsed Gingrich. Last week in Nevada, Sharron Angle, a Tea Party-backed candidate for US Senate, endorsed Santorum.
Some voters say no circumstances - even a sense of inevitability for Romney - would change their minds.
“I would never vote for Romney,’’ said Tony Incardoni, an air conditioning technician from Treasure Island, Fla., who attended a Gingrich rally in Tampa before the Florida primary. He said Romney is too liberal to take on Obama. “Newt is about having fun. He has fun getting down and dirty. And if we don’t get down and dirty, we’re going to lose.’’