Jonathan Cohn

Is Romney Taming the Tea Party?

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MILFORD TOWNSHIP, Michigan -- Mitt Romney on Thursday night visited Tea Party country, or what passes for it in these parts. He was the guest of honor for about 500 tea party activists at a banquet hall in northwest Oakland County, on the very outer edge of the Detroit suburbs.

Ideologically, Milford occupies a sort of a no-man’s land between more moderate, urban communities to the east and more conservative, rural communities to the west. It’s close enough to Bloomfield Hills, Romney’s childhood home, to give Romney an advantage but far enough away to keep that advantage small. If Romney is going to win the Michigan primary on Tuesday, he must remain competitive in places like this.

So how’d he do? I can offer only impressions, based on the reaction of a self-selected crowd and interviews with less than a dozen attendees. But my hunch is that Romney did well enough. The audience greeted him warmly and, among those I interviewed, even those who were undecided or committed to Santorum, said they liked what they heard.  

In short, Romney may not make their heart go pitter-patter, but at this point he may be good enough.

The speech itself was largely familiar. Thematically, it was about patriotism and restoring American greatness. Programatically, it was about fixing the economy. The crowd responded more strongly to the former, but during the interviews voters talked more about the latter -- and their faith in Romney to get it right, not so much because of what he was proposing but because of who he is. “I was a Ron Paul supporter, but Mitt has swayed me over,” said Paul Garon, a real estate salesman and Republican activist from nearby Plymouth County. “I like his experience in business, that he seems serious about making the national government smaller.” 

Of course, Romney has been campaigning as a businessman all along -- and, really, since he came through this state four years ago, winning the primary but eventually losing the nomination to John McCain. But the problem (or a problem) for Romney has been an inability to convince Tea Party voters he will be true to their strongly conservative agenda, particularly given support of health care reform in Massachusetts. And it seems he still has some work to do on that front. “It still comes up with a lot of people,” Donna Nakagiri, of Hartland, said of Romneycare and what it says about the candidate. “Will he vigorously repeal [Obamacare] or will he partially repeal it?”

But Nakagiri seemed prepared to look past that, as did most of the other voters I interviewed -- either because they saw Romney’s other virtues or had been thinking about Santorum’s other flaws. During his appearance, Romney jabbed at Santorum twice. He never did it by name: Instead, he mentioned a rival who believed in violating conservative principles to “take one for the team.” But the audience seemed to get the reference -- which was to a comment Santorum made during Wednesday’s debate, while defending his endorsement of former Republican Senator Arlen Specter. And over the course of the evening I heard more about Santorum’s supposed heresies than I did about Romney’s, which perhaps has something to do with the fact that pro-Romney, anti-Santorum ads are all over the airwaves right now.

Again, my sample could be highly unrepresentative. But I see (just as I'm posting this) that it's consistent with the new poll for Michigan Information & Research Service. In that survey, Romney is ahead by Santorum by 36 to 33 percent. And although that is still a statistical tie, the pollsters, Mitchell Research and Rosetta Stone Communications, found that Romney seems to be consolidating support among voters on the right:

Romney has made big inroads with conservatives over the past ten days: Santorum’s 16% lead among Tea Party voters has been erased and he is now tied with them; his 16% lead with Evangelical Christians has now been cut in half to 8%, and Santorum’s 31% lead with self-identified “very conservatives” has now been cut to 13%. Romney had to persuade fiscal and social conservatives that he was more conservative than they thought he was. He also had to persuade them that Santorum was not as conservative as Santorum said he was. Romney seems to be accomplishing both those tasks.

Full results are here

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