The 2012 silly season may at last be drawing to a close. Sarah Palin has wrapped up her tireless tease, Tim Pawlenty has ceded his candidacy, and Thad McCotter basically admitted he never really had one. Most poignantly, Chris Christie declined to audition for GOP messiah, spurning pleas so weepy they would have broken the will of a lesser man.
With filing deadlines looming and state parties pushing early primaries ever earlier, the Republican field may not yet be set, but it is clearly settling. And with that settling come more and more stories of how the GOP establishment is squaring its shoulders, holding its nose, and lining up behind the enduring yet uninspiring Mitt Romney. Most notably, Georgette Mosbacher, co-chair of the RNC finance committee publicly said this week of her big-money brethren: “We’ll be contacting one another and probably put something together with Romney … And I would say that the race is now Romney and Obama.”
But while the establishment may be ready, in the name of party unity, to look past the former governor’s flaws—the flip-flops, the heresies (Romneycare!), the stiffness, the excessive hair product—out among the grassroots, the mood remains less forgiving.
“Just as none of the candidates want to talk about being vice president, there is no way on God’s green earth I will think about Romney getting the nod,” Gregg Cummings, Iowa coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots, emailed me. “We the people are doing all we can to get a true conservative in the White House, and Romney is not that person.”
The group’s cofounder and national coordinator, Mark Meckler, similarly rejects the idea that Romney is about to dominate the contest. “What you’re talking about is the conventional wisdom,” he contends. “If people were listening to the conventional wisdom, Barack Obama would not have become our president,” he says, noting that all the “traditional money and power” in 2008 were aligned with Hillary Clinton.
Unsurprisingly, the suggestion that the establishment wants to wrap Romney in a cloak of inevitability only makes Tea Party types more combative. “We will fight against it being a slam dunk,” asserts Pam Wohlschlegel, Florida coordinator for Tea Party Patriots. “It’s not a done deal. And, I tell you, if Romney continues on his track of dissing Tea Partiers, it’s not going to work in his favor!”
Even inside the Beltway, some conservatives are getting verrrrry nervous at the prospect of Romney capturing the nomination. At the offices of FreedomWorks, the Tea Party–promoting group chaired by former House Republican leader Dick Armey, there is much talk of what can and should be done to stop the former governor. “We have strategy discussions all the time about, how important is it that Mitt Romney doesn’t get the nomination—for the party, for the cause? And how involved and engaged should we be to prevent him from doing so?” says Brendan Steinhauser, the group’s top field organizer. “I’ve been arguing it’s vital that we take him out.”
Already, FreedomWorks has been making mischief: In August, it organized a protest of Romney’s appearance at a Tea Party rally in Concord, N.H. The governor was just looking for a photo op that would make him appear sympathetic to the cause, charges Steinhauser, and “we felt that we owed it to our members not to participate in that.”
More and more, however, what really keeps Steinhauser up at night is the possibility that conservatives won’t coalesce around another candidate in time to stop Romney. “We need a Tea Party person to win in the early states and say, ‘I am the alternative to the establishment,’” he stresses.
To this end, Steinhauser will be spending the next few months speaking to voters in early primary states about the need to “think very strategically.” FreedomWorks won’t be pushing a specific Romney alternative before the early voting, Steinhauser assures me, but will be preaching a message of political sophistication. “Vote with the heart, yes, but also vote with a level of political analysis that gives us the best candidate possible for our values.”
In other words, if your favorite candidate has no prayer at winning come primary day, don’t throw your vote away.
The bright spot for Romney in all this? If he does wind up the nominee, the Tea Party’s history of carping will make him seem more moderate for general-election voters. And there isn’t much appetite out there for a third-party challenge. “The system is too corrupt for a third-party candidate” to win, asserts Iowa’s Cummings.
And, of course, the risk of throwing the race to Obama is too high. “We have to keep our eyes on the prize,” says Tea Party activist Corey Lewandowski, New Hampshire director of Americans for Prosperity. “At the end of the day, come November 2012, whoever is the Republican nominee for president, all the [different groups] will coalesce behind, because they firmly believe a change in the administration is necessary.”
Agrees Wohlschlegel: “Whoever wins, we will stand behind.”
Such declarations of pragmatism may not make for a particularly inspirational battle cry, but they are undoubtedly music to the ears of Team Romney—and the broader Republican establishment.
“I’m pretty sanguine about it,” conservative commentator Bill Bennett says of Romney’s tepid appeal to the base. “Heartthrobs come and go. He’s still in there.”