Rep. Michele Bachmann founded and leads the House Tea Party Caucus, but the Minnesota Republican's presidential bid has won only one endorsement from its five dozen members — putting her well shy of Mitt Romney, who leads the presidential field with eight supporters from the caucus.
Mr. Romney's lead in the endorsement chase clashes with the generally accepted story line and polls that show the former Massachusetts governor is out of sync with the grass-roots tea party movement, which helped Republicans capture the House and grab six Senate seats in the 2010 elections.
"Absolutely freaking stunned would be the words I would use," Judson Phillips, the vocal leader of Tea Party Nation, told The Washington Times when informed of Mr. Romney's popularity.
"Obviously, anybody can join the Tea Party Caucus in Congress, but his support at least among the tea party rank and file is minimal," Mr. Phillips said. "If Romney becomes the nominee, basically, it would be the death of the Republican Party and the death of the conservative movement."
Mrs. Bachmann's single endorsement — from Rep. Trent Franks, Arizona Republican — leaves her tied with Tim Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor who bailed out of the race four months ago but had the backing of Rep. Joe Wilson, South Carolina Republican and Caucus member.
Mrs. Bachmann's camp did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Andrea Saul, a Romney spokeswoman, said the endorsements show that her boss "shares with tea party members a concern about controlling debt and deficits and has the leadership experience of actually creating jobs and balancing budgets to get the job done."
Texas Gov. Rick Perry has won the stamp of approval from seven of the group's members, while four have lined up behind former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
The rest of the field has failed to corral a single endorsement from the group, though Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, known as the "Tea Party Godfather" in some conservative circles, does enjoy the support of his son, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and a founding member of the Senate Tea Party Caucus.
Mrs. Bachmann established the House Tea Party Caucus in 2010, saying that it would be less about speaking for the grass-roots movement and more about listening to it.
Since then, the caucus has blossomed to 60 members, though it last met June 2 and polls show that the better the movement has become known, the more its popularity has slipped.
Within the Republican Party, though, the "tea party" label is still sought.
Mrs. Bachmann, in recent television appearances, has cast herself as "the true tea party candidate in the race" and assured audiences that she's "not a chameleon." The remark is an apparent attack against Mr. Romney and Mr. Gingrich, both of whom have been labeled as flip-floppers on a variety of issues.
"That's why I think they're going to come home, and I'll be their candidate on Jan. 3, because if you take a look at the top contenders, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, it's very hard for a tea partyer to see them as the consistent conservative," Mrs. Bachmann said Tuesday on the CBS "Early Show." "They backed [President] Obama's health care plan in various forms, in different ways. They've been for the global warming initiatives. They've been for the TARP bailouts."
Last week, her campaign announced that activist Ryan Rhodes had been named the campaign's tea party outreach director. The same day, Mrs. Bachmann received the endorsement from Mr. Franks — the one caucus member backing her bid.
"I know Michele is right on the issues that are important to conservatives across the country, and I know she won't back off," Mr. Franks said in announcing his support. "I have seen her at work in Washington, standing firm on key issues like Obamacare, the debt ceiling, and TARP."
So far, "none of the above" is winning the endorsement battle in the House Tea Party Caucus.
Of the 59 members besides Mrs. Bachmann, 36 told The Times that they haven't endorsed anyone, while 21 members have endorsed someone.
The office of Rep. Gary G. Miller of California didn't return multiple emails and phone calls asking about his plans, while a spokeswoman for Rep. Sandy Adams of Florida begged off from answering about her boss's plans.
"We are not interested in participating," spokeswoman Lisa Boothe said.
Some tea party activists said the importance of congressional endorsements is overblown.
"I'm not concerned about who those people are supporting, I'm concerned about who the people out on the ground are supporting," said Amy Kremer, leader of the Tea Party Express.
Others in the grass roots do care.
Beth Mizell of the Franklinton Tea Party in Louisiana said Rep. Rodney Alexander, her representative, had chosen politics over principle by endorsing Mr. Romney, and fed into the notion that most elected leaders in Washington are seen as "tainted" by their environment.
"We would hope our Republican congressman would really be promoting a constitutional conservative," Ms. Mizell said, adding that Mr. Romney doesn't fit the bill at this point in the campaign. "Rather than take a stand on principle," she said, "politicians' primary issue is going with what they see as the winner."
"What people are waiting for, they are waiting for someone to step out on principle, warts and all, " she said. "Show us the principle, show us what you really stand for, and we will overlook the warts."
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