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New Hampshire Dispatch: Mitt Romney Panders to Tea Party, Fails

Concord, New Hampshire—With the choreographed precision of a giant amoeba, the crowd of blue-shirted Mitt Romney supporters stopped listening to the speaker on the stage and squeezed its way toward the Tea Party Express bus. A moment later, as the former Massachusetts governor parted the blue sea of about 40 cheering fans—many bused in from Massachusetts—to deliver his speech at the much-ballyhooed Tea Party event on Sunday, the blue shirts erupted into rapturous applause.

In the days leading up to the rally, pundits had trounced Romney’s decision to speak in Concord as a shameless effort to pander to the Tea Party, not to mention a desperate move to save his flagging campaign. Nationally, some Tea Party groups threatened a protest. But only about ten such protesters made it to the rally, many of whom were from FreedomWorks, the DC-based group that had first issued the threat. Indeed, most of the assembled couldn’t care less that Romney might have been pandering, as long as he was finally beginning to pander to them. But if New Hampshire’s Tea Partiers came to the event with a surprisingly open mind, Romney’s insular campaigning style soon confirmed all the deepest-held suspicions that they harbored about the man and his candidacy.

THE MAJORITY OF the crowd had come to see Romney speak, though many readily admitted that he wasn’t their guy, nor did they consider him a front-runner for the nomination. That status went to Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann, with Ron Paul pulling his fair share as well. But despite the appearance of Flipper, the flip-flopping dolphin—a man whose costume was designed to taunt Romney’s tenuous allegiance to various conservative causes—most in attendance didn’t care if Romney was flip-flopping as long as his final dive landed him in their cup of tea. “Well, if he’s going to run for president, this is a constituency he needs,” said Bill McConnell, 78, of Concord. “I certainly wouldn’t criticize him for coming to speak to us.”

In short, many Tea Partiers came to have their minds changed and their concerns about Romney addressed. They wanted to hear about why he advocated for mandated healthcare in Massachusetts when he was governor. They wanted to question him about his record on jobs, why some of his companies failed when he was in private business, and his stance on same-sex marriage. “He still hasn’t satisfactorily explained his position with Massachusetts healthcare,” said Harry Dout of Manchester, New Hampshire. “He certainly has pluses, and he has minuses. But there are some things he needs to sort out and he needs to explain.” Nancy LeBlanc of Auburn, Maine, for her part, told me she came out to support the Tea Party, but also wanted to hear what Romney had to say. Though she wasn’t inclined to vote for him, she said he could change her mind if he showed her “how he’s going in the right direction as far as restoring financial sanity in the United States.”

Instead, Romney delivered a stump speech. “I believe in free enterprise,” he told the crowd. “I believe in the Constitution, all of the amendments.” After twelve minutes of speechifying, including a word cloud that included the Constitution, freedom, and states’ rights—he was done. There would be no questions, no back and forth, no chance for his detractors to press him on points of contention. Romney’s blue shirts quickly surrounded him once more as he left the stage, helping him make his escape to a waiting ivory SUV. When I tried to get a question in, it was quickly shot down by one of his handlers, who put out his hand and informed me that “he’s not doing any interviews.” “Thanks for coming out,” said Romney, who never broke stride.

Back at the rally, the crowd—once at about 200—now resembled an intimate backyard barbecue. The Romney blue shirts had vanished too. Left were a smattering of members of the New Hampshire Tea Party and some hawkers selling patriotic and religious paraphernalia. Most New Hampshire Tea Partiers view Tea Party Express, with their JumboTrons and folksy songs (“our grandchildren won’t forget, how we sold out for a little change and left us all in debt”), as nothing more than corporate carpetbaggers, so it wasn’t surprising that they didn’t stick around once Romney left. “I don’t look at the Tea Party Express as being part of the Tea Party movement,” said Charlie Russell of Concord, New Hampshire. “I look and see all sorts of—it’s like a carnival—I see all sorts of stuff being sold, albums and all this. I mean there is no centralized management, but I’m not sure that what’s here really represents the New Hampshire Tea Party.”

As for Romney’s performance, it hardly lit any fires. “It sounded like his normal speech,” said Bruce Blodgett, 50, a Tea Party supporter from Nashua. “What brought me out here was a chance to meet the presidential candidates and hear what they had to say. As far as how Romney did tonight, it would have been better if he had answered some questions. That was my big take away: He didn’t answer any questions.”

Melanie Plenda is a freelance reporter based in New Hampshire.