A squabble between tea party factions broke out Wednesday over a speaking invitation for GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney - highlighting a feud that threatens to derail the former Massachusetts governor’s chances of wooing support from the ranks of the grass-roots movement.
FreedomWorks, a tea-party affiliated group, threw the first punch, saying it was pulling out of the Tea Party Express’ national bus tour because Mr. Romney is scheduled to participate in one of the stops this weekend in New Hampshire. The group said it now plans to join local tea party groups to protest the ex-governor’s appearance as a featured speaker, saying his record “represents everything the tea party stands against.”
“If every political opportunist claiming to be a tea partyer is accepted unconditionally, then the tea party brand loses all meaning,” said Matt Kibbe, FreedomWorks president. “Our grass-roots activists will be in New Hampshire on Sunday to defend the tea party ideas of small government and fiscal responsibility, and to remind Mitt Romney that when it comes to policy, actions speak louder than words.”
Levi Russell, Tea Party Express spokesman, countered, calling the protest “silly,” and at best a “misguided press stunt,” while warning that “narrow-mindedness is not the way to strengthen the tea party movement.”
“The Tea Party Express trusts the ability of tea party members to evaluate candidates and issues, and make up their own minds,” Mr. Russell said. “We don’t think it is right to tell the tea party who they can and can’t listen to. A top-down isolationist approach isn’t constructive to the political process.”
The spat follows a series of polls that show Texas Gov. Rick Perry has sprinted ahead of Mr. Romney in the GOP’s nomination race, leaving the ex-governor in the unfamiliar position of running from behind this campaign season.
It also came after Mr. Romney rearranged his schedule to attend a Labor Day presidential forum in South Carolina hosted by Republican Sen. Jim DeMint - a move some view as an attempt by Mr. Romney to reach out to tea party supporters, many of whom have fallen in line behind the three-term Texas governor. Mr. Perry also will participate in the forum, putting the men on the same stage for the first time since tossing their respective hats in the presidential ring.
The flare-up, on a broader level, reflects the ongoing battle between the GOP establishment and the grass-roots activists credited with playing a key role in handing Republicans control of the House in the November election.
Tea partyers, Mr. Kibbe said, remain suspicious of Mr. Romney’s support for government-run health care in Massachusetts, the TARP bailout, and his “cloudy stance” on cap-and-trade legislation related to greenhouse gas emissions. The moves, he said, have caused members heartburn.
Other groups, though, said Mr. Romney should not be excluded.
Judson Phillips, the vocal leader of Tea Party Nation, backed the Tea Party Express’ decision to invite Mr. Romney to speak.
“That is fair and reasonable,” Mr. Phillips said. “It is a testament to the power of this movement that Romney, who to this point has eschewed all tea party involvement, now wants to speak to this movement.”
Asked to weigh in on the feud, Mark Meckler, the head of the Tea Party Patriots, said that several candidates in the field - including Mr. Perry, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, and former Godfather Pizza CEO Herman Cain - are more appealing to the movement than Mr. Romney.
“He certainly hasn’t reached out to our organization or any local tea parties that I am aware of,” he said, while suggesting Mr. Romney is still dogged by his continued support of the universal health care law he signed as governor of Massachusetts. “The same things that have always been issues for him since the beginning are still issues. If anything, he has made it worse by restating his former opinion, which is contrary to most people in the movement.”