- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The organization that ignited the tea party as a national mass movement gave Mitt Romney perhaps his biggest victory yet, deciding to drop its opposition to his candidacy, a top executive in the group told The Washington Times.

FreedomWorks, which organized the Sept. 12, 2009, mass demonstration on the Mall, says that while it will not give an explicit endorsement, the time has come for Republicans to unite around the former Massachusetts governor and focus on defeating President Obama.

“It is a statistical fact that the numbers favor Mitt Romney,” FreedomWorks Vice President Russ Walker told The Times on Tuesday. “We are dedicated to defeating Obama and electing a conservative Senate that will help Romney repeal Obamacare and address the nation’s economic and spending challenges.”

Mr. Romney has been winning a majority of delegates and has more than twice the number that former Sen. Rick Santorum has, and he continued that run Tuesday with a victory in Illinois.

Exit polls in Illinois showed Mr. Romney won among those who said they support the tea party movement, edging out Mr. Santorum 43 percent to 37 percent [-] the same margin as Mr. Romney won those who were neutral on the tea party.

The Illinois results marked an improvement for Mr. Romney. In Ohio, Mr. Santorum had won tea party supporters, and the two men had essentially tied among tea partyers in Michigan. In each of those states, somewhere between 52 percent and 59 percent of primary voters said they either “strongly” or “somewhat” support the movement.

None of the four candidates remaining in the 2012 Republican nomination battle started out on FreedomWorks’ most-wanted list, and Mr. Walker’s organization, which had tried to derail Mr. Romney’s nomination effort, isn’t telling any tea partyer explicitly to vote for any candidate in particular.

“We have members that supported all the candidates, including Mitt Romney,” Mr. Walker said. “Each of the candidates has weaknesses and strengths.”

The tea party is a “leaderless movement, so it will be up to individuals to decide when and where they put their support,” Mr. Walker said.

The former congressman from Texas, who is FreedomWorks’ chairman, had a list of names that could excite his organization, but none decided to join the fray.

“As long as a year ago Dick Armey privately and publicly encouraged [Indiana Rep.] Mike Pence, [South Carolina Sen.] Jim DeMint, [Wisconsin Rep.] Paul Ryan and [Indiana Gov.] Mitch Daniels to run for the presidential nomination,” Mr. Walker said. “We take direction from our members who early in the primary asked us to not to back any one candidate.”

Some conservatives will see FreedomWorks as breaking away from an “anyone but Romney” stand to “let’s unite the Republican Party behind Romney” stand in order to defeat Mr. Obama in November.

For example, FreedomWorks organized a protest in August among its grass-roots members against Mr. Romney’s addressing a Tea Party Express rally in New Hampshire. He also alienated FreedomWorks by, among other things, supporting the Troubled Asset Relief Program during the Bush administration.

The change also reflects the desire of local FreedomWorks chapters to refocus the nomination contest on economic issues such as jobs, gasoline prices, spending, debt and the federal budget deficit. Some key Illinois conservatives also see Mr. Santorum’s focus on social issues such as homosexuality and religious objections to contraception as a distraction.

“Santorum has spent a great deal of time here talking about social issues,” said Demetra DeMonte, the national secretary of Republican National Committee and a member from Illinois. “This would explain Romney’s performance among tea parties today in Illinois.”

Matt Kibbe, FreedomWorks president, also has told conservatives outside his organization that it’s time to unite behind someone and build the local machinery to take on Mr. Obama.

“It’s hard to figure out how someone other than Mitt Romney wins at this point,” Mr. Kibbe told radio host Glenn Beck. “He’s got the numbers on his side.”

Mr. Kibbe said that while Mr. Romney has “flaws,” he has great strength in his successful management of businesses and can beat Mr. Obama in November.

“We feel it’s time to shift our attention to defeating Obama and begin the difficult task of taking back the Senate,” Mr. Walker said. “No matter which Republican wins the White House, that person will need a strong reform caucus in the Senate and House to move a pro-growth economic agenda. Our goal has always been focused on building that reform caucus and winning back the Senate.”

But some tea party enthusiasts in Illinois aren’t ready to buy the “coalesce” theme.

“I supported Santorum and voted for him in the Illinois primary today,” said Joe Morris, an assistant attorney general during the Reagan administration. “I approached the whole field — Romney, Newt Gingrich, Jon Huntsman [remember him?], Ron Paul, Santorum — with an open mind and a laborious process of elimination led me to the vote that I cast.”

• Ralph Z. Hallow can be reached at rhallow@gmail.com.

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