Tea Party voters were expected to play a key role in the 2012 republican presidential primary. But with movement hopefuls Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry low in the polls, and Herman Cain now out of the race, the Tea Party vote remains very much in play. Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul may stand most to gain. New NHPR’s Josh Rogers reports.
Attend any NH campaign event with a Tea Party flavor and you will come across more than a few voters like Mark Grenier.
“Mitt Romney? I’d spit on his shoes. The man’s flip-flops, health care, you can’t trust him.”
On this day, Grenier was attending a Ron Paul house party. He says his vote will be determined by a simple logic: it will go to the candidate farthest to the right. But Grenier, who’d just finished pressing Paul – unsuccessfully -- to agree that Iran poses an existential threat to Israel, says he’s not sure the Texas Congressman, or anyone else, clearly fits the bill.
"I like most of what he has to say but I really don’t like the stance on Israel."
What about Gingrich, what do you make of him?
"I like Gingrich, I like his ideas, I like his policies. But is he just going to be another politician?"
That’s exactly the question Ron Paul conservatives in early voting states to ask. Paul has an ad running on the internet and on Iowa TV that takes aim at what he calls Gingrich’s serial hypocrisy.
"Everything that Gingrich railed against when Gingrich was in the house, he went the other way whe he was paid to go the other way."
Negative campaigning is atypical for Paul. But with polls in Iowa and NH showing him in a tight race for second place, he and Gingrich are fighting for a lot of the same conservative vote.
"He’s all over the map philosophically and I wouldn’t think it would endear him to conservative republicans."
Talk to prominent NH tea partiers about Gingrich, though, and you’ll find more tolerance than disdain.
"He is not the perfect candidate but he is probably better than the ones that are top runners right now."
Tim Carter leads the Lakes Region Tea Party, which held presidential a straw poll last month. Gingrich won handily. Ron Paul tied Herman Cain for a distant second. Carter says he came to back Gingrich after becoming disillusioned with Michele Bachmann. Carter says he’s looked at Ron Paul, but thinks it’s scary to envision him as Commander-in-Chief.
"No matter what you say he’s a libertarian. And when it comes to foreign policy, no way would I want this guy to be president and just take a policy where we bring everybody back home and just hope that nobody invades us."
As they weigh their choices, NH Tea Partiers have more than just issues to guide them. They also have personal ties. Newt Gingrich has put Tea Party activists at the center of his state operations. One directs his campaign; another advises on policy; a third coordinates volunteers. Tim Carter says that sends a powerful message.
"Newt, he could not have hired better people in NH. He got the cream of the crop."
But the Tea Party has never been a monolith. Jerry Delemus organizes the Rochester 9/12 group and runs a Tea Party affiliated PAC. He says he understand why some Tea Partiers see Gingrich as appealing.
"I think he could beat Obama, I think he would chew him up, he would decimate him."
Yet Delemus also says he has problems with Gingrich’s policy shifts over the years, and says there are legitimate reasons to question Gingrich’s values – personally, and as a creature of Washington.
"What do you want to replace Obama with, is what the American people need to ask themselves? And there are some candidates out there with huge integrity -- Santorum, Dr. Paul is another one."
Delemus adds that he is willing to vote for a candidate with little chance of winning. And that may be the divide within the Tea Party in this election -- between those who will vote for the person who most closely shares their views, and those who want a candidate with more of a fighting chance to carry the day.