From THE TICKET at YAHOO! NEWS:
When NBC’s Brian Williams asked former Gov. Mitt Romney at the most recent Republican presidential debate if he considers himself “a member of the tea party,” it may have been the toughest question of the night.
As anyone who aligns himself with the small-government movement will tell you, the question was overly simplistic–the tea party is more of an intellectual concept than an actual centralized organization–but Williams’ question clearly struck a nerve. It was one of the only questions during the debate that Romney hesitated before answering, and his meandering response took far more time and effort than what some of his contenders would have expended in the same exchange. Herman Cain, for instance, probably would have whistled by the query and just said, “Yes.”
“I believe in a lot of what the tea party believes in,” Romney said. “The tea party believes that government’s too big, taxing too much, and that we ought to get to the work of getting Americans to work. So I put together a plan with a whole series of points of how we can get America’s economy going again. Tea party people like that. So if the tea party is for keeping government small and spending down, and helping us create jobs, then, hey, I’m for the tea party.”
Interestingly, that’s about the same response that tea party-aligned lawmakers provided when I asked if they thought Romney espoused the principles of the movement. All basically gave the same answer: To paraphrase a popular Facebook characterization of a user’s relationship status, it’s complicated.
“That’s not a simple question,” Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a founding member of the Senate Tea Party Caucus, told me Thursday night as he rushed to a meeting in the Capitol building.
“What the tea party stands for, and what unites everybody in the tea party I think, is their concern about the debt, and the concern that we’re borrowing so much and printing so much to pay for our debt,” Paul said. “And as much as any politician comes toward that, I think they will be embraced. I don’t think there’s a clear-cut person out there other than Ron Paul and Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin–people that are at the forefront of the tea party. But I don’t have anything negative to say about Romney.”
Among grassroots tea party activists, division over the question of supporting Romney is sharper. [...] When the Tea Party Express invited Romney to speak at an event earlier this month, members of FreedomWorks, a separate tea party group, organized a counter protest in the same area.
“The principles of the tea party are incredibly simple,” Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee, another founding member of the caucus, told me. “It’s all about the fact that the federal government is too big and too expensive, and anyone who supports that proposition can barely align themselves in one way or another with the tea party.” But when I asked if Romney passed that test, there was nothing simple about it. Lee paused, sighed, and said that he didn’t have time to offer a complete answer to the question. (He was running into a Senate vote and the deadline was fast approaching.) But Lee took a stab at it anyway: “He understands free markets. He understands how to generate revenue. He understands the limitations of government.”
When I asked Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, also a freshman senator who won election on widespread support from the tea party, he said he was reserving judgment.
“We’ll see based on how he conducts himself on the campaign,” Johnson said.
Just like Romney during the debate, no one in the tea party’s front ranks could just say, “Yes.”