GOFFSTOWN, N.H. — Killing time before Mitt Romney’s campaign rally here this week, GOP activist Paul Clark shared the story of how some tea party activists in the crowd had assured him that they would vote for the presumptive GOP nominee come Election Day.
But, the 78-year-old Republican said, they struck a different tune when he urged them to assume a more active role in the Romney campaign.
“The guy says, ‘Well, you know, I don’t know about that,” Mr. Clark told The Washington Times.
The episode could spell trouble for Mr. Romney, who easily won New Hampshire’s Republican primary, but has struggled to generate the sort of on-the-ground energy in tea party circles that inspired the door knocking and phone banking that helped propel Republicans to a slew of victories in the 2010 election.
“The grass-roots tea party activists are not enthusiastic about presumptive nominee Mitt Romney,” said Cynthia Howard, founder of the Claremont New Hampshire Citizens for Lower Taxes, a tea party group.
This year, the tea party has shown its naysayers that it is still a force to be reckoned with in American politics. They played a key role in Indiana, where state Treasurer Richard Murdouck ousted Sen. Richard G. Lugar in the GOP primary. They also scored a major victory last month in the Texas primary contest, when Ted Cruz, a former state solicitor general, defeated Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, the choice of the party establishment.
Many tea partyers see Mr. Romney as the establishment pick and view his record with suspicion — thanks to his support for No Child Left Behind that dramatically expanded the federal government’s role in education, the 2008 Wall Street bailout and the universal health care law he signed in Massachusetts. Highlighting his support of the Patriot Act and the National Defense Authorization Act, they also question his commitment to protecting civil liberties.
Mr. Romney has tried to reach out to conservative grass-roots activists, attending the annual Americans for Prosperity New Hampshire dinner. He also brought on Chris Wood, a veteran activist who served as coalitions direction for Rep. Ron Paul’s 2012 campaign in the state, to lead grass-roots outreach efforts.
With less than 80 days to go before the election, the tricky part for Mr. Romney is that even when he embraces the tea party, such as he did this week by saying the Federal Reserve should face an audit, some still see it as too little, too late.
Similar doubts dogged his appearance at a tea party event last year in nearby Concord, N.H., which sparked a rift between tea party factions over whether his attempts to align himself with the movement were genuine.
“If every political opportunist claiming to be a tea partyer is accepted unconditionally, then the tea party brand loses all meaning,” Matt Kibbe, president of Freedomworks, warned at the time in a news release.
Mr. Kibbe has since softened his tone toward Mr. Romney.
“[Tea partyers] are not ecstatic about Romney and they probably never will be, but the attitude now has shifted to how do we get Barack Obama out of office,” he said, arguing that his selection of Mr. Ryan as a running mate is a move in the right direction.
Jane Aitken of the New Hampshire Tea Party Coalition disagreed, saying that on top of supporting TARP and NCLB, Mr. Ryan also voted for the taxpayer bailout of General Motors and Chrysler. “He is being billed as being the conservative, but is that record conservative?” she said.
Whatever the case, Ms. Aitken said the Romney candidacy has generated an “an internal battle” within the movement in the Granite State.
“There are people saying, ‘You have to vote Romney because he is not Obama,’ but then you have people saying, ‘You shouldn’t reward his campaign’s bad behavior and his lack of conservatism — this is how you are controlled by the two party system.”
“Even people who are resigned to the fact that they may end up having to vote for Romney, they never argue ‘vote for Romney because he stood strong on issue X, Y, and Z’. It is always ‘vote for Romney because he is not Obama,’” she said.