CONCORD, N.H. -- Mitt Romney’s inaugural tea party went off Sunday evening with hardly a hiccup.
In the capital of the state that will hold the nation’s first presidential primary next year, about 250 people gathered at Rollins Park to see Romney make his first appearance at a tea party event since announcing his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination. Off to the side: A group of 40 or so Romney supporters -- including one dog -- wearing the candidate’s trademark blue Romney “Believe in America” T-shirts, some of which came from boxes the campaign had on hand. They mobbed him when he came on stage but dispersed at the candidate’s request “so my friends in the back have a chance to see.”
He was joined on stage at first by his wife, Ann. She joked that after his last campaign for the White House, in 2008, she said she would never do it again. But, she added, she said the same thing after each of her pregnancies. The couple has five children.
Romney’s 15-minute speech focused on themes calculated to appeal to his audience’s views favoring a limited role for the federal government. “Our founders gave us political freedom,” he said. “This is the greatest nation in the history of the earth in part because of these founding parents who understood the power of that freedom, and we’re going to make sure we keep it.” He also spoke of his strong belief in the Constitution and the power states should have to compete against each other, joking about California’s then-governor, Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, trying to poach Massachusetts jobs while Romney was the Bay State’s chief executive. As he has in his other stump speeches, he touted his experience as a businessman and job creator. Romney did not mention any of his rivals for the Republican nomination, some of whom have more ardent tea party support.
Romney’s tea party debut drew skeptics as well as supporters. “I like Mitt, but it’s time to quit,” read the sign carried by tea party supporter Ralph Zazula, who drove 100 miles from his home in Massachusetts to the rally and said he voted for Romney for senator and governor. Zazula said he’s not convinced that Romney would fully embody tea party ideals as president. “The most critical issue that we’re faced with right now is restraining the size of government,” he said. “And Mitt is a guy who is less likely to reduce the size of goverment as much as the other candidates, or my fear is that he might continue to allow it to grow.”
A small protest before the event, organized by the tea party-affiliated FreedomWorks was sparsely attended and lasted only about eight minutes. One speaker stood in front of a sign that read “Romney = Rino,” a term frequently used by tea partiers to deride “Republicans In Name Only.” One young man took the microphone and denounced the health care plan that Romney signed when he was governor. Like the federal law that President Obama signed, it requires individuals to have health insurance coverage. “Does Romneycare violate individual responsibility?” the speaker said. “Yes it does, as a mandate to buy insurance. Does Romneycare violate free markets? Yes it does. Does Romneycare expand government? Yes it does. So the tea party stands in direct opposition to Mitt Romney’s record.”
In a phone interview, FreedomWorks President Matt Kibbe called Romney’s appearance at the tea party rally “blatantly opportunistic” and suggested that the governor is reaching out now to tea party supporters because “he’s falling behind in the polls.” Recent surveys have shown that Texas Gov. Rick Perry is threatening to topple Romney from his status as the GOP field’s front-runner. Kibbe said Romney’s record on health care, environmental regulation and government spending is at odds with tea party views. Tea partiers are not looking for a “typical pat on the head,” he said. “They are really interested in where he stands on policy.”
At the Concord event, however, the crowd listened politely and intently to Romney’s speech. One of the organizers, Tea Party Express Chair Amy Kremer, said the group was “happy to have him.” Her organization does not support or oppose any of the presidential candidates, she said, but wants to provide a platform for voters to hear “who has the best ideas and solutions to turn the economy around and get us back on the path to prosperity.” Kremer said the organization has extended speaking invitations to all of the Republicans running, and has heard back from all but one, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas.
On Monday, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin is scheduled to speak at another New Hampshire tea party rally. The 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee, who has said she’s considering a presidential run this year, is to address a noontime gathering in Manchester.