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CAMPAIGN 2012

Romney makes move to embrace Tea Party

Mitt Romney, shown earlier this week, says he agrees with the Tea Party’s position that government is too big. Mitt Romney, shown earlier this week, says he agrees with the Tea Party’s position that government is too big. (Eric Gay/Associated Press)
By Matt Viser and Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / September 1, 2011

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WASHINGTON - For much of the past year, Mitt Romney seemed to strenuously avoid looking as if he were too closely linked to the Tea Party. No longer.

In an apparent strategic shift, Romney will be standing beneath a Tea Party Express banner in New Hampshire on Sunday night, and by Monday afternoon he will be at a Republican gathering in South Carolina hosted by Senator Jim DeMint, the South Carolina Republican and Tea Party kingmaker.

What changed?

Governor Rick Perry of Texas entered the race, accepted swoons from the Tea Party, and immediately replaced Romney as the Republican frontrunner.

Romney spent much of the spring and summer running a low-key general election strategy almost exclusively focused on President Obama as if he were already the GOP nominee. The former Massachusetts governor was cautious as he sought to maintain a broad-based approach and avoid the bitter primary altercations that can complicate a general election campaign.

But since then, Romney has increasingly reached out to embrace the Tea Party, including singing its praises at a recent gathering in New Hampshire and culminating in this weekend’s plans.

Some within the Tea Party movement are not ready to welcome Romney with open arms.

A coalition of Tea Party groups is planning to stage a protest event about 30 minutes before Romney is scheduled to speak at the Tea Party Express rally.

Among those planning to attend the counterevent - where protesters will hold a press conference, carry signs, and turn their backs on Romney while he speaks - are representatives of New Hampshire groups such as the Republican Liberty Caucus, the Lakes Region Tea Party, the Raymond Tea Party, and Granite State Patriots.

FreedomWorks, a Washington-based group that has been at the forefront of the Tea Party movement, yesterday pulled its staff member off the Tea Party Express bus to protest Romney’s inclusion in Sunday’s event. The bus has been making its way across the country, eventually heading to Florida, where the Tea Party Express and CNN are jointly sponsoring a GOP presidential debate Sept. 12.

“It’s preposterous,’’ said Brendan Steinhauser, director of federal and state campaigns for FreedomWorks. “Mitt Romney is not and never has been a Tea Partier. He’s just a charlatan. This movement’s been going on since the fall of 2008, and he’s never attended a Tea Party rally. He’s never reached out to the movement before.’’

Romney’s aides declined to comment yesterday on the planned protest and downplayed any notion that the candidate was shifting his strategy, saying that he had said months ago that his campaign would pick up its activity after Labor Day. They also said that Romney has reached out in the past to the Tea Party movement, speaking at a New Hampshire dinner hosted by the fiscally conservative group Americans for Prosperity. He has also donated money to Tea Party-backed candidates.

Levi Russell, spokesman for the Tea Party Express, said the group had initially invited all of the presidential candidates to participate in their bus tour. They didn’t hear from Romney’s campaign until his staff reached out toward the end of last week to say Romney was interested in speaking, a request Russell said came as something of a surprise.

“This is our fifth national tour and getting close to our 200th event,’’ Russell said. “We had never before heard a willingness or interest from Romney in coming out and speaking.’’

Russell called the protest “a silly stunt that’s unhelpful to advancing the Tea Party movement or finding a suitable replacement for Barack Obama.’’

Romney’s candidacy has long illustrated the divide within the Republican Party, with many in the party establishment favoring the former Massachusetts governor for his business background and political pragmatism.

But the Tea Party activists have distrusted him, citing his past positions and his political flexibility, as well as the passage of a Massachusetts health care law that requires residents to obtain insurance.

“This is classic Romney,’’ said Andrew Hemingway, chairman of the Republican Liberty Caucus, one of the groups putting together the counterevent. “The guy flip-flops on everything, so all of a sudden he sees an opportunity to get in on some of the energy and present himself like he’s a Tea Party candidate.’’

Hemingway had generous words for Perry, but said the Tea Party movement generally is motivated more right now to try to stop Romney than to coalesce around one candidate.

“The only consensus that there is, is, ‘Anybody but Romney,’ ’’ Hemingway said. “After that, it splits between Bachmann, Ron Paul, and Rick Perry.’’

Romney’s campaign has mostly coasted through the early months of the nominating contest, with a comfortable lead in the polls and no candidate threatening him. That changed two weeks ago when Perry jumped into the race and began attracting support from longtime Republicans who like his job-creating record in Texas, and from Tea Party activists who like his brash, plainspoken style.

A Gallup Poll last week showed Perry with 35 percent of self-identified Tea Party members supporting him, more than double the 14 percent for Romney or Bachmann.

Gallup and other polling organizations show Perry in the lead for the Republican nomination, but they also show Romney doing better in the general election against Obama.

The challenge for Romney is winning a primary that is still energized by the Tea Party movement without hurting his chances in the general election, should he become the nominee.

Since Perry entered the race, Romney has been making more explicit appeals to the Tea Party movement.

“The great thing about the Tea Party movement is that Republicans of all backgrounds and interests have all coalesced around a few common themes, which is government is too big and spending too much,’’ Romney said two weeks ago at a town hall meeting in Berlin, N.H. “I happen to agree with that. You’re seeing the Republican Party united in a way that I haven’t seen before.’’

But the Tea Party movement, which surged during the 2010 midterm elections that led to a Republican takeover of the US House, has seen its national approval numbers take a hit in recent polls. Those who view the movement unfavorably have jumped 10 percentage points since November, to 46 percent, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll taken Aug. 18-22.

Just a quarter of respondents said they consider themselves supporters of the movement, which is a drop of 8 percentage points since June and the lowest in AP-GfK polling. Many voters have been unsettled over the debt-ceiling debate, where newly elected Republicans backed by the Tea Party did not want to compromise with the Democrat-controlled Senate and White House.

Late on Tuesday, Romney added another event to his schedule in addition to the Tea Party Express rally. After weeks of saying he could not participate in a forum put together by conservative leader DeMint, Romney said he would change his schedule in order to make it to Columbia, S.C., where he and Perry will appear at the same event for the first time in the campaign.

Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com. Tracy Jan can be reached at tjan@globe.com.