- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 8, 2011

CONCORD, N.H. | The tea party movement is mixing a strange political brew in famously independent New Hampshire, complicating the first-in-the-nation primary strategy for the growing number of Republican presidential hopefuls.

Tea party activists have made significant inroads in a state that typically prefers GOP moderates and establishment candidates when choosing White House nominees. The grass-roots movement has claimed leadership posts at the local and county levels, and in a stunning development last month, tea-party-backed Jack Kimball edged out businesswoman Juliana Bergeron for state Republican Party chairwoman.

Would-be White House contenders such as Tim Pawlenty, Mitt Romney and Rudolph W. Giuliani, who as recently as four years ago would have focused on wooing GOP establishment figures, now are making quiet overtures to activists in this early voting state. Tea partyers are ready to push presidential contenders to embrace their outsider rhetoric and punish candidates who espouse moderate policies. Scores of new voters have become engaged in politics and could rewrite the traditional rules of the primary, which in past cycles rewarded early groundwork and establishment bona fides.

“The conservative base is sowing its oats,” said Fergus Cullen, a former state GOP chairman. “They feel empowered in a way they didn’t feel before. And they will have strong opinions about what they want.”

At this stage, the primary stands as a wide-open contest that hinges on whether tea party voters unify behind one candidate or remain splintered.

“A front-runner? It’s hard to predict,” said Maureen Mooney, a Merrimack activist who was often at Sen. John McCain’s side as he won the primary in 2008 en route to the Republican nomination. “It’s still early, and we have some serious candidates who deserve a look.”

Mr. Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who came in a close second in the 2008 primary, enjoys high name identification and benefits from the remnants of his previous campaign operation and a political action committee that has been busy spreading dollars and earning chits in early voting states. He doled out campaign donations to local politicians and maintains a vacation home on Lake Winnipesaukee.

Gov. Romney has a lot support from his last campaign,” said Franklin Mayor Ken Merrifield. “But we’ve seen in past years where the person ahead at the beginning is not the winner.”

Independents are the largest voting bloc in New Hampshire - for either party primary. In 2000 and 2008, Mr. McCain won the Republican primary after George W. Bush in 2000 and Mike Huckabee in 2008 energized conservatives to prevail in Iowa.

Cranky New Hampshire voters seldom ratify national trends, and the ascendant tea party leaders are looking for an outsider who will heed their orthodoxy. If they sustain their enthusiasm, tea party supporters could completely reshape who is showing up at the polls for the primary, tentatively scheduled for Feb. 14 next year.

Mr. Pawlenty has set up an aggressive political operation in the state, building good will among activists, both new and veteran. His political action committee dispatched six staffers to the state to help the state party during its September primary and funneled cash into state races, helping gain 124 seats for the party in the New Hampshire state House.

But the old playbook may not yield a victory if the tea party has its say.

“It’s anybody’s bag,” said state Rep. Fran Wendelboe, a conservative activist and former state legislator. “Pawlenty is one of the strongest. But some of the names we talk about haven’t even visited yet.”

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels has not made the introductory contacts needed in the state. Others are looking for Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, seen as a champion of the national tea party movement.

An ally to Sen. John Thune of South Dakota has been making phone calls from his Upper Valley home to court activists, but the senator hasn’t made a public trip here and his aides are trying to manage the presidential chatter.

The biggest uncertainty for the field is Sarah Palin, her party’s vice-presidential nominee in 2008 and a potent political personality. The former Alaska governor endorsed Kelly Ayotte in last year’s GOP Senate primary and riled some conservatives in the state who had united behind another candidate.

Activists say they would like Mrs. Palin to visit - she last was in the state during the final days of the 2008 presidential campaign - and are eager to question her at house parties and town-hall-style meetings. Yet there are doubts she would do the hard work the early states require instead of favoring a Facebook, Twitter and Fox News Channel path.

“New Hampshire voters deserve to check you out, check your record,” said Mr. Cullen, the former state GOP chairman. “No one wins here without the work.”

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