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In N.H., How Important Is Tea Party Support?

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney reacts as he enters a town meeting in Manchester, N.H., Friday. (AP)

Mitt Romney reacts as he enters a town meeting in Manchester, N.H., Friday. (AP)

BOSTON — - Part of an occasional series

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney now leads the polling in three key early primary states in his quest to earn the Republican presidential nomination next year: Florida, South Carolina and the first-in-the-nation primary, New Hampshire.

That’s despite the fact conservative Republicans are still searching for an alternative to Romney. Around the country, the Tea Party is expected to play a large role in shaping whoever is the nominee. But things are playing out differently in New Hampshire.

Every month, the Rochester 912 Project group meets at the Salmon Falls Church. The group is important enough to attract Republican House Speaker William O’Brien.

At the last meeting, O’Brien fielded a question about one of his legislative priorities — abolishing no-fault divorce in New Hampshire — from frequent attender Karen Testerman.

“Statistics show us that if you get married and stay married, that that’s the biggest weapon we have against poverty. What are we doing to try and turn that around?” Testerman asked.

CLICK TO ENLARGE: A look at Rochester, N.H. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

CLICK TO ENLARGE: A look at Rochester, N.H. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

“It’s such a big issue, Karen,” O’Brien replied. “As you know, I’ve put in bills that would eliminate the possibility of no-fault divorce for parents of minor children, ‘cause we know that one of the most devastating things that can happen to a child is for parents to get divorced. If you’re a child and your parents get divorced your life expectancy is 3.7 years less than children whose parents don’t become divorced.”

“The Rochester 912 group is interesting. It’s authentic,” said Fergus Cullen, a former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party who lives in nearby Dover.

Cullen is no Tea Partier, but he’s been able to observe the Rochester group from up close.

“It’s genuine grassroots. It’s sprung up in the last couple of years out of disgust with the direction of the Obama administration, the size and scope of government, ‘ObamaCare,’ the bailout, all those things,” Cullen said. “Whether they represent a broader group than themselves, is, I think, a separate question, but they’ll hold a meeting, they’ll get 100 people, and there aren’t lots of Republican groups anywhere who can do that.”

Like Tea Partiers across this state, the Rochester group hopes to have a big impact on the New Hampshire presidential primary. They recently held a party at a tire dealership to watch the Republican candidates debate.

“I believe that registered independents will outnumber self-identified Tea Partiers by a wide margin, by multiples come primary day, and yet we have seen one candidate after another chasing the bright shiny object that is the Tea Party.
– Fergus Cullen, former chairman, New Hampshire Republican Party

Until her New Hampshire campaign collapsed, many in the Rochester group supported Michele Bachmann. Amelia McKenney, a retired nurse, is looking for someone who can win the general election, “And I’ll vote for Mickey Mouse if they beat Obama,” she said.

But others, including Testerman, want someone who can embody their conservative passion.

“I’m so sick of electable.”

“Yeah. You’re only unelectable if people won’t get behind you.”

Lately, at least until accusations of sexual harassment surfaced, it had been Atlanta talk show host Herman Cain who had been rallying people in search of an alternative to Romney, the front-runner in New Hampshire.

Cain got the warmest reception when several candidates addressed the overwhelmingly Republican New Hampshire Legislature recently.

Cain, Bachmann, and the governor of Texas, Rick Perry, all have taken turns as candidates New Hampshire Tea Partiers have taken a look at as alternatives to Romney.

“There certainly is a vacuum right now for the very conservative portion of the Republican primary electorate in New Hampshire,” said Dante Scala, chairman of the University of Hampshire political science department. “Those voters, I would suspect, are looking for a champion. They’re looking for someone to rally behind.

“They would like a conservative alternative to Mitt Romney. But I suspect there’s some level of frustration with, frankly, the quality of the candidates thus far. Time and again we’ve seen in New Hampshire this year, a burst of enthusiasm for a very conservative candidate followed by a disappointment.”

But Romney may not be just outlasting his opponents, he may actually be outmaneuvering them all for the Tea Party vote.

On Friday night, Romney brought a big LED clock to his town hall meeting in Manchester with about 120 invited undecided voters.

“Fourteen trillion, $946 billion in debt. Last time I looked at that clock, it was about $100 billion less,” Romney told the crowd.

Romney in Manchester, N.H., Friday (AP)

Romney has peppered his campaign appearances around New Hampshire with references to the national debt and other issues that concern Tea Partiers. And in New Hampshire, it’s paid off. Scala points to a recent University of New Hampshire poll.

“One thing that’s been striking is how well Mitt Romney does among New Hampshire voters who say they are supportive of the Tea Party,” Scala said. “Among those who are a supporter of the Tea Party, Mitt Romney has a net favorability, that is, positives minus negatives, of +46. So he stands very well among Tea Party supporters.”

So well that Romney has a better image among New Hampshire Tea Party supporters than any other candidate.

But there’s a difference between people who say they are Tea Party supporters and the Tea Party activists. And Chris Buck thinks there’s a spoiler role for the activists to play.

Buck managed the New Hampshire presidential campaign of Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R-Mich.), who recently dropped out of the race. He thinks Tea Party activists could end up robbing either Perry or Romney of enough votes to throw the election to the other guy.

“It’s very clear that it will come down to a two-man race between them. The Tea Party will probably vote for Bachmann, Cain, maybe Santorum, so there’s a certain amount of votes that Perry or Romney will not be able to capture,” Buck said.

But some New Hampshire political analysts say the Tea Party may actually not play much of a role in New Hampshire. Cullen is one of them.

“I believe that registered independents will outnumber self-identified Tea Partiers by a wide margin, by multiples come primary day, and yet we have seen one candidate after another chasing the bright shiny object that is the Tea Party, I think at the expense of recognizing where that sweet spot treasure trove of primary voters really is,” Cullen said.

Right now Romney has found that sweet spot. A Rasmussen poll last week had him earning the support of 41 percent of people who say they will vote in the Republican primary. And even if he has not captured the Tea Party activists, he’s saying the right things to earn the support of voters who like the Tea Party’s ideas.

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