WASHINGTON - Their distaste for an East Coast establishment Republican has been a defining feature of the presidential primary campaign. But following his convincing New Hampshire victory last week, the number of Tea Party supporters wanting to stop Mitt Romney’s candidacy is beginning to shrink.
It is another sign of strength for the former Massachusetts governor as he seeks a third consecutive victory Saturday in South Carolina. Newt Gingrich showed a late resurgence among South Carolina Tea Partiers in a CNN poll released yesterday, but most recent polls there and the fourth primary state, Florida, show Romney gaining support among all conservatives, and a corresponding weakening of Tea Party opposition. The trend mirrors national polls.
Romney’s improved standing among Tea Party supporters has coincided with the candidate’s persistent criticism of President Obama as an advocate for transforming America into a “European-style social welfare state.’’ Electability has been a pillar of Romney’s strategy. The attacks - combined with the assertion that Obama does not understand traditional American values - are helping assure Republicans that Romney can mount a strong campaign against the president.
Romney also appears to be benefiting from a sense of inevitability beginning to surround his quest for the nomination. He defied expectations and barely won the Iowa caucus, then followed that achievement with his solid New Hampshire performance last week, when he captured 39 percent of the vote. That has solidified his standing atop the polls.“There is nothing like being a winner,’’ said Peter Brown, assistant director of polling at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut.
The Tea Party and its dislike of the Massachusetts health care plan and Romney’s moderate record as Bay State governor were considerable impediments to his candidacy throughout 2011. But none of the Tea Party’s darlings - Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, or Gingrich - has been able to sustain a surge, highlighting limitations of a nascent movement that couldn’t extend its 2010 congressional successes onto the presidential stage.
The latest polls suggest a good number of Tea Party supporters are getting behind the party’s most likely nominee, despite qualms about his record, because their overriding goal is removing Obama from the White House.
A Quinnipiac poll of Florida voters released last week showed Romney’s support among self-professed Tea Party members rising from 19 percent in September to 35 percent. A Monmouth University poll released this week said Romney captured 34 percent of Tea Party support, compared with 24 percent for Gingrich. The CNN poll yesterday placed Romney atop the pack with a 10-point lead over Gingrich but gave Gingrich a 31-to-26 lead among Tea Partiers.
Nationally, a CBS News/New York Times poll released yesterday said Romney had 29 percent of Tea Party support, up from 17 percent for Romney in a CBS News poll on Jan. 9. Romney’s backers argue that, despite tepid support and an inability to break above 25 percent in polls during 2011, Romney is now poised to pull together a fractured party.
“Once voters start to control the process, winning creates a passion of its own,’’ said Tom Rath, a GOP consultant and Romney adviser in New Hampshire. “It happens across the board, and all people and all parts of the party come together.’’
Losing in South Carolina on Saturday would seriously undermine this argument, cut into the Massachusetts governor’s momentum, and test his organization and support in Florida. Gingrich, Perry, Rick Santorum, and Ron Paul still have their own passionate supporters. Gingrich is roughly even with Romney in Tea Party support in Florida.
Romney was forced this week to grapple with controversy when he acknowledged that his personal effective tax rate is close to 15 percent, partly because much of the income he continued to receive from Bain is taxed at the same rate as capital gains. That could further damage the multimillionaire candidate among populist Tea Party members, whose movement has been fueled in large part by mistrust of Wall Street and anger at the 2008 bank bailouts.
The flip side of Romney’s improving poll numbers is that large numbers of Tea Party supporters remain skeptical. Ryan Rhodes, an uncommitted Tea Party leader in Iowa who supported Bachmann before she dropped out of the race, said Romney “still has got a lot to prove that he’s actually going to hold the mantle of conservatism.’’
“When specifically asked if Barack Obama was a socialist, Romney said no, so I don’t think Romney has been all that critical of him,’’ Rhodes added.
Yet there is no doubt Romney’s attacks on the president appeal to conservatives. His charge that Obama does not understand American concepts of freedom and opportunity and takes his inspiration from the “capitals of Europe,’’ draws hearty applause at his rallies.
The line of attack simultaneously plays into voters’ fears about Europe’s rocky financial state, suggests Obama has socialist tendencies and does not share basic American values, and even contains an echo of “birther’’ allegations that Obama was not born in the United States, said Thomas Whalen, a Brown University social science professor and expert on the US presidency.
“It’s the old chestnut that is music to the ears of the conservative base, who have maintained all along that Obama is not a real American,’’ he said. The tactic also helps deflect questions about his own candidacy among conservatives, said Whalen. “He’s saying, ‘You may not like me, but it’s either me, or we’re going to live under a socialist order that is going to tax you into oblivion.’ ’’
The president of a Democratic super PAC supporting Obama and Senate candidates said Romney will have difficulty in a general election selling the allegation that Obama is not sympathetic to American values.
“It’s a rallying cry for the Tea Party base,’’ said Rodell Mollineau, president of American Bridge 21st Century. “There’s a little bit of, ‘he’s not like us, he’s not one of us,’ subtext to these attacks. But you have Mitt Romney. He doesn’t exactly come across as the common man who can make such an attack.’’
Christopher Rowland can be reached at email@example.com.