CONCORD, N.H. — Just a year ago, tea party activists came roaring out of the congressional elections eager to shape the looming race for the White House.
Things have not gone as planned.
Turned off by Mitt Romney’s style and evolution on several important issues, they have bounced from one candidate to another with the hope of finding a formidable alternative to the former Massachusetts governor.
After a series of disappointments - Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and businessman Herman Cain among them - the anti-establishment movement has settled, for now, on a favorite: former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, even though he has spent more than three decades in Washington politics.
With the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3 and tea party support fractured at best, some activists worry that the passion that defined the movement 13 months ago may become lost in the selection of the next president.
Infighting among conservative groups, a growing sense of pragmatism, and glaring weaknesses among the candidates have forced some tea party leaders to acknowledge their limits and shift their attention to Congress.
“I wish that we had coalesced behind one candidate earlier on. It’s not because of the tea party movement, it’s because there hasn’t been that candidate out there so far that has stirred the passion - the fire in the belly,” said Amy Kremer, president of the Tea Party Express. “Everybody wants to focus on presidential politics. I think we need to be focused on the Senate. That’s where we really, really need to be engaged.”
Lacking a presidential contender to rally behind, Ms. Kremer’s organization and others have begun eyeing congressional elections that could shift the balance of power on Capitol Hill next fall regardless of the presidential race winner.
Other tea party groups, despite a desire to figure prominently in the White House contest, are left to focus on policy debates in Congress.
“We’ve changed the discussion on Capitol Hill and we’ve let the politicians know we get the game they’re playing,” said Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots.
And presidential campaigns still are courting tea party leaders.
Since 2008, Mr. Romney has invested time and money in building relationships with Republican leaders inside and outside the tea party movement.
That investment helped produce endorsements from conservative favorites including South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and unsuccessful Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell of Delaware.
Mr. Gingrich, after such a long Washington career, represents the kind of political insider that many tea party activists generally oppose. But Mr. Gingrich had used his now-defunct organization, American Solutions, to support the tea party movement for years.