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Politics

Tea Party followers warm up to Mitt Romney

A sign showed the national debt total Monday inside the Tampa Bay Times Forum, site of the GOP convention.

John Tlumacki/Globe staff

A sign showed the national debt total Monday inside the Tampa Bay Times Forum, site of the GOP convention.

TAMPA — Mitt Romney was not Gena Bell’s first choice among the Republican candidates for president. Or her second.

She is not alone among Tea Party activists who, with their zeal for downsizing government, are trying to redirect their enthusiasm to the Republican Party’s nominee from Massachusetts. During the nominating process, Romney, the principal author of the 2006 Massachusetts law that became the prototype for President Obama’s health care overhaul, was something of a nonstarter for many of the activists, who are playing a greater role at this convention and on the ground in elections.

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Bell, from the Cincinnati suburb of Kenwood, liked Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann, she said in a telephone interview during a break last week from her work in Tampa monitoring deliberations on the platform for this week’s Republican National Convention. But neither of her favorites was still in the running by the Ohio primary. “I waffled back and forth, and at the last minute, I guess I ended up with Newt [Gingrich].” She described herself now as “absolutely supportive” of Romney, as did other Tea Party activists who were interviewed.

With a political past pockmarked with moderate policies and pronouncements that he shed in recent years, Romney maintained an awkward arm’s-length relationship with the Tea Party movement throughout the primaries and caucuses. But his choice of Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin as his running mate has improved his standing with the advocates of minimal government, the vanguard of what many of them consider to be a “hostile takeover” of the Republican Party, based on purist conservative fiscal principles.

“He wasn’t our choice at all, but he got the nomination, and he’s certainly better than the other guy,” meaning Obama, said Adam Brandon, executive vice president of FreedomWorks, the well-funded organization that provides financial and technical support services to grass-roots advocates of “lower taxes, less government, and more economic freedom.”

“By picking Ryan, he is making sure entitlement reform is a key issue in this election, and that’s wonderful,” Brandon said. “I don’t think Ryan is a Tea Party guy, but he sure is friendly to us on our core issue.”

More broadly, Brandon asserted: “One of the victories of the movement is that the debt and deficit are front and center, and it looks like Romney wants to run a campaign on issues involving the economy, and that’s what energizes Tea Party activists.”

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The party has installed a scoreboard in the Tampa Bay Times Forum that clocks the increase in the national debt in real time (it is approaching $16 trillion) and above it one that counts the increase in the debt since the start of the convention Monday afternoon.

The convention speaking role of Tea Party heroes such as Senators Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida, who will introduce Romney to the convention unless Tropical Storm Isaac requires a drastic revision of plans, is also playing well with Tea Partiers, who earned their stature in the GOP with a string of stunning political victories in party primaries. In the 2010 cycle, they helped knock off seemingly secure incumbents including Senator Robert Bennett of Utah and other establishment-blessed candidates, though, in the final election, some of the Tea Party-backed winners went on to lose what were considered safe or winnable seats.

With the Tea Party behind them two years ago, Paul trounced the establishment favorite, former secretary of state Trey Grayson, and Rubio drove then-governor Charlie Crist from the party before the primary and defeated him in the general election when Crist ran as an independent. The most recent high-profile victims of the Tea Party insurgency are Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, defeated by state Treasurer Richard Mourdock, and, in a race for the nomination last month for an open Senate seat in Texas, Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, beaten by Ted Cruz, who is scheduled to address the convention.

FreedomWorks, based in Washington, is careful not to tread on the grass-roots, non-hierarchical ethos that produced the Tea Party groundswell starting three years ago. Nowhere was that more evident than in the organization’s effort to try to shape the party platform for this convention, the first with a Tea Party flavor.

Using “crowdsourcing” technology, FreedomWorks sponsored an exercise that allowed 1.2 million participants to narrow from 60 to 12 the number of issues on a “Freedom Platform” and sent Bell and 11 other “commissioners” to monitor and lobby the committees assembling the Republican platform.

Before the convention, over a three-week period, the Internet-based process forced the activists to choose the issues they consider most essential by randomly pitting different issues against each other in a sequence of online exercises. The technique also limited any factions, including backers of Representative Ron Paul of Texas, from dominating the process as they did at some convention-delegate selection proceedings in the states.

Many of Paul’s economic policies are attractive to Tea Partiers, and the 12-point “Freedom” and party platforms include a signature Paul issue: auditing the Federal Reserve.

Of the preferences expressed by the crowdsourcing process, FreedomWorks said, the platform reflects 10, as well as supportive language on the two that were not adopted: abolishing the Department of Education and creating a flat tax, or single federal income tax rate.

In addition to “audit the Fed,” FreedomWorks-endorsed planks adopted by the convention were: “Repeal Obamacare” and pursue patient-centered health care; “stop the tax hikes,” including extending all of the expiring so-called Bush tax cuts for all income levels; “reverse Obama’s spending increases”; pass a balanced-budget amendment; “reject cap and trade” of industrial pollution credits; “rein in the (Environmental Protection Agency)”; “unleash America’s vast energy potential”; “reduce the bloated federal workforce”; “curtail excessive federal regulation.”

The crowdsourcing options did not include social or foreign policy issues, which allows the Tea Party to reach broadly across the party for support on economic issues.

“You can have hard-core libertarians and hard-core Sarah Palin evangelicals under the same tent,” Brandon said. “When it gets into social or foreign policy issues, there’s a lot of different opinions.”

Many conservatives, for example, view Ron Paul’s noninterventionist foreign policy views as isolationist and flat out reject his support for decriminalizing drugs.

Pushing their economic principles, the FreedomWorks Tea Partiers found acceptance in Tampa.

“We have very much been welcomed,” said Debbie Wilson of Apollo Beach, Fla., south of Tampa, referring to herself, Bell, and the other FreedomWorks platform lobbyists. “We’ve been embraced; they like our policy proposals.”

At the convention, the Tea Partiers are demonstrating they are not a flash in the pan.

“There’s a lot of people in the party who probably view us as useful idiots and hope we go away some day,” said Brandon of FreedomWorks. “But the truth of the matter is there’s a growing recognition that we’re becoming the base of the party.”

Brian C. Mooney can be reached at bmooney@globe.com.

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