On the day that Mitt Romney formally announced his run for the presidency last year, he found himself competing with a stiff New Hampshire wind, which stood his hair on end and played havoc with his microphones. What blew in later was even more distracting: the red, white, and blue bus bearing Sarah Palin on her “One Nation” tour. Palin stole the headlines, and Romney’s buzz, that day (“Coincidence,” she said), and beyond. Through much of the summer, she hovered at the edge of the Republican primary campaign as a shadow candidate, once predicting that she could not only beat Romney, but President Obama, too, before finally declaring herself out of the race last fall.
But Palin continued to vex Romney’s candidacy, questioning his conservatism, encouraging the non-Romneys still in the race, and publicly cheering for the prospect of an open convention. Even after Romney clinched the race in late spring, Palin remained pointedly hesitant about the presumed Republican nominee. She has not yet extended to Romney her full endorsement, and, while she speaks animatedly of the urgency of defeating President Obama in November, her support for Romney derives from the fact that Romney meets Palin’s threshold qualification—as “anybody but Obama.”
In that regard, Palin reflects the abiding unease that many conservatives, especially the grassroots activists associated with the Tea Party movement, still feel about Romney. A poll published by The Washington Post last week showed Romney dead even with the president, but it also revealed that Obama holds a startling enthusiasm advantage over Romney. More than half of Obama’s backers, 51 percent, said they’ll vote for him “very enthusiastically,” compared with just 38 percent of Romney’s supporters expressing similar eagerness. Republican energy and enthusiasm resides within the Tea Party, which delivered the House of Representatives to the GOP in 2010, and this year defeated six-term Republican Sen. Richard Lugar in a primary and helped save Gov. Scott Walker’s job in Wisconsin. Romney has failed, so far, to connect with that energy. “Quite honestly, we have been focused on the Senate races, rather than the presidential race,” says Amy Kremer, chair of the Tea Party Express, “and that is what I’ve seen from everybody across the country.”
What galls the Tea Party activists is the sense that Romney represents a lost opportunity for their agenda of less government, flatter taxes, and constitutional restraint. Facing a vulnerable president saddled with a bad economy and a crisis in the public sector, they feel stuck with a guy served up by Republican elites who speaks conservatism with an establishment accent. Worse, in this view, Romney seems incapable, or unwilling, to even defend himself, as the Obama campaign machine highlights his offshore bank accounts and his career at Bain Capital.
“Romney’s just not a fighter,” says Jenny Beth Martin, head of the Tea Party Patriots, the largest of the activist groups. “That’s why it would be good for him to have someone like Palin speaking at the convention. He needs to do something to rile up his base, to make them enthusiastic. And I don’t mean just the Tea Party. I mean die-hard Republicans. I live in the second-most-Republican county in the state of Georgia, and the folks around here are not enthusiastic about him.”
Palin would certainly light up the base at the convention—her 2008 vice-presidential acceptance speech was, in terms of partisan enthusiasm, the high-water mark of the McCain campaign—but a jolt of Palin at Romney’s convention seems most unlikely. The Romney campaign prides itself on a slavish adherence to script, and Palin cannot be trusted to avoid the impulse to go rogue. That is why, perhaps, the Romney campaign has not asked Palin to speak at the convention nor contacted her about even attending the party’s marquee event in Tampa. Queries to the Romney camp about any possible Palin role at the convention meet with a stony silence. Palin does not seem surprised. “What can I say?” she responded in an email from Alaska, when asked by Newsweek about the convention, just before heading to Michigan to deliver an Obama-thumping speech. “I’m sure I’m not the only one accepting consequences for calling out both sides of the aisle for spending too much money, putting us on the road to bankruptcy, and engaging in crony capitalism.”
“In accepting those consequences,” she added, “one must remember this isn’t Sadie Hawkins and you don’t invite yourself and a date to the Big Dance.”
As Romney closed in on the Republican nomination in May, a group of key Tea Party leaders gathered for a breakfast meeting at “the Embassy,” the big Capitol Hill townhouse that the late Andrew Breitbart used as his D.C. headquarters. The subject was Romney, and whether the grassroots could unite behind him for the fall campaign. It had been a long, bitter primary season, and there was a good deal of anti-Romney venting. “There were tears in some of the people’s eyes as they talked about what they were looking for in our nominee,” recalls Herman Cain, who’d summoned a Tea Party unity rally the day before. “I mean, we saw real tears—that’s how passionate a lot of these people are.”
Some were resentful about the way the Romney forces had moved like “the Dark Star,” as one participant put it, against Romney’s opponents during the primaries. The deeper feeling was that Romney was just the wrong man for the moment. Romney had spent much of the campaign seeming to ignore the Tea Party, standing back while his rivals adopted the activists’ rhetoric and solicited the favor of their leaders, each rising and falling in turn. Romney’s campaign had, in fact, maintained an open channel to Kremer and the Tea Party Express, just in case. The Tea Party had scheduled its first-ever presidential debate, on CNN, for September, and Kremer knew that if frontrunner Romney didn’t show up, the event would be a bust. As it happened, by the time of the debate, Romney was getting hammered in the polls by Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and was in urgent need of some street cred. He agreed to the debate, and the Tea Party Express hosted a New Hampshire rally for him the week before—to mixed results. Among the activists in the crowd were two dozen or so who were there to protest against Romney (including one anti-Romneyite who dressed as Flipper the dolphin and wore a pair of yellow flip-flops).
The crowd was notably more enthusiastic the following day when Sarah Palin appeared. (In an obvious reference to Romney-come-lately, Palin said, “We’re seeing more and more folks realize the strength of this grassroots movement, and now they’re wanting to be involved ... I say, right on, better late than never.”)
But Romney never seemed quite comfortable with politicking in the Tea Party era. Even in the heat of the primary race, Romney seemed put off by the idea of courting the activists, complaining in February that he wasn’t about to “light my hair on fire to try to get support”—a remark that only underscored doubts about him within the base.
At that meeting at the Embassy in May, Cain urged the activists to put all that behind them. It was time to unify, he said, and to defeat Barack Obama. Cain said he planned to meet with Romney soon and offered to convey the Tea Party concerns to the candidate directly. The activists gave him a list: they wanted Romney to fashion a sharper defense of free enterprise, to come up with a clearer vision for shrinking the size and scope of government, and a clear plan for tax reform. They also wanted to meet with Romney personally, perhaps over dinner.
The following week, Cain and his aide, Mark Block, met in Boston with Romney and his campaign manager, Matt Rhoades, and Cain presented the Tea Party case, prefaced by Cain’s own pitch for some version of his “9-9-9” tax plan. Romney was receptive, Cain says, although he notes that Romney made no commitments. The hoped-for dinner with Tea Party leaders has not been scheduled.
But Cain believes that the grassroots will eventually rally around the Republican nominee. “Romney is not Ronald Reagan,” Cain says. “But Romney is not Barack Obama. The Tea Party people, the citizens-movement people, they get that.” (Cain plans to continue his role as emissary between the Romney camp and the Tea Party, and plans a unity rally in Tampa on the eve of the convention.)
Meanwhile, the grassroots activists found themselves awakened anew by the Supreme Court’s upholding of Obama’s health-care reform. “We have one chance to repeal Obamacare,” says Kremer. “If President Obama is reelected, it will never be repealed.” Yet, just as Obamacare reemerged as an animating cause for conservatives, the Romney camp stepped on the issue when the campaign’s senior media adviser, Eric Fehrnstrom, declared on MSNBC that Obamacare’s individual mandate was not a tax but a penalty—just as Obama has been saying. The base was furious. “If Romney makes blunders like he and his campaign did talking about the Obamacare tax, or whatever you want to call it, he’s gonna wind up depressing his own vote, if he’s not careful,” says Martin. “They feel like he’s better than Obama, but if he does things like this, they’ve got to wonder what difference it makes.”
Palin shares much of these same reservations about Romney. “Romney has said before that he doesn’t want to have to light his hair on fire,” Palin said on Fox last week. “Well, there are a lot of his base supporters, independents, who are saying, ‘Well, light our hair on fire, then!’” Palin’s objections to Romney are not so much about the man himself—she speaks of him respectfully, as he does about her—but about who, and what, he represents. Romney was the choice of the party’s elites, whom Palin has regarded with open disdain ever since her rough treatment during the 2008 campaign. They are some of the same people who anonymously disparaged Palin as a clueless bumpkin, and some of them are now helping to run Romney’s campaign. When unnamed Romney aides tell reporters that Romney will likely go with a “safe” choice for vice president because of the 2008 “disaster,” Palin notices.
She noticed, too, that when the Romney camp reined in Fehrnstrom after his “not a tax” goof, the man assigned to take on a more public role as Romney spokesman was Kevin Madden, best known in Palin’s sphere for his appearance on a CNN news panel just days before the 2008 election. The subject was the latest piece of leaked Palin gossip—her $150,000 “shopping spree” (for which Palin later reimbursed the Republican National Committee)—and the damage Palin was perceived to have done to the McCain campaign. “That’s an indication just how unseasoned Sarah Palin is as a national candidate,” Madden opined, before laughing about Palin’s lack of knowledge about issues and declaring that “people who have done this before” know enough to choose running mates “that are nationally vetted.”
Palin says that she doesn’t know Madden and will not comment about him personally. However, she adds: “I assume he didn’t do his homework and his disparaging remarks were due to him actually believing the BS reporting on my record and reputation that began the day I was tapped to run for VP. I’ll assume and hope he’s evolved since then, perhaps understanding now the leftist media’s agenda against candidates they oppose.”
The Romney camp will not comment on Palin, or on plans for the convention, but one adviser associated with the campaign suggested that Palin would be prohibited from speaking at the Republican convention by her contract with Fox News. “It’s true I’m prohibited from doing some things,” Palin says, “but this is the first I’ve heard anyone suggest that as an excuse, er, reason to stay away from engaging in the presidential race. I’m quite confident Fox’s top brass would never strip anyone of their First Amendment rights in this regard.” (Fox says her contract would not prohibit speaking at the convention if she sought permission.)
Palin is keeping the dates open in late August, just in case. In any event, she says, she plans to be politically active between now and November, starting with a Michigan Tea Party appearance, sponsored by Americans for Prosperity. “No matter the Romney campaign strategy,” she says, “I intend to do all I can to join others in motivating the grassroots made up of independents and constitutional conservatives who can replace Barack Obama at the ballot box.”
Palin’s admirers—and they are many, judging by Facebook and Twitter metrics, where her numbers are far greater than Romney’s—still hope for a rapprochement. “Palin is the female Ronald Reagan of our time,” says Kremer of the Tea Party Express. “There’s no one that excites the base, and energizes the base, the way that Sarah Palin does. There’s just not.”
Despite the risks, Team Romney may be well advised to consider bringing Palin inside the tent. Whether she’s in Tampa for the convention or not, she will be out there somewhere, and talking.