CONCORD, N.H. -- The GOP's presidential frontrunner in New Hampshire is here, and the renegade members of the Tea Party want to wreck his day. At 5 p.m. they are already gathering in Rollins Park, a few yards away from the place where Romney will speak at a rally put on by the Tea Party Express.
"The issue with Romney is the issues," says Jackie Bodnar, spokeswoman for FreedomWorks, the group that quit the TPX tour to protest Romney. She hands me the three pages of fliers and oppo research that everyone will be getting as they show up, with granular details about the taxes and fees and un-Tea Party things Gov. Mitt Romney supported in the 'Aughts.
Peg Coutermarsh was one of the first to arrive. She wears a shirt with the date January 19, 2013 on it -- Obama's last day in office, if he loses -- and holds a flagpole that has been signed by famous Tea Party speakers. Hermain Cain has signed it. She doesn't want Romney to sign it.
"I'm going to support a Tea Party candidate," she says. "Romney represents the same old, same old."
Is she swayed at all by the polls that show Romney beating Barack Obama?
"If you read into who was polled, they were all Romney people."
The press conference starts at 5:30, sharp. There are two dozen protesters and around 30 reporters scribbling down what they say. Andrew Hemingway, wearing a Join-or-Die T-shirt, speaks into a microphone, his anti-Mitt jeremiad radiating from a small grey amp.
"Did you know that 50,000 people fled Massachusetts because of Mitt Romney, fled to the free state of New Hampshire?" asks Hemingway. "For him to say, in a recent Politico article, that a lot of Tea Party people in New Hampshire like him? I say he's drinking the wrong Kool Aid."
Jerry DeLemus, chairman of Granite State Patriots, warns us that Romney is about to commit fraud, getting the media to take pictures of him in front of a "Tea Party" banner and pronounce him acceptable.
"A photo-op is just that," he says. "I can take a picture of myself in front of the Supreme Court. That does not make me a Supreme Court justice!"
There is a common theme in their complaints. Romney does not talk to them. He has not "reached out" to the Tea Party. They rattle off the other candidates who have, like Buddy Roemer, who is -- hey! Conveniently enough, he is walking around the grounds, dressed in a blue shirt and orange tie that may be visible from space. He kibitzes with the Tea Party rebels and subjects himself to interviews with foreign reporters. A French TV crew wants an interview. "French is like a second language to me!" he says.
The protest breaks up, with Hemingway encouraging rebels to attend the Tea Party Express rally anyway. As the rebels migrate, Sharron Angle walks amongst them, wearing a blue blazer and carrying a copy of her new autobiography, "Right Angle." A Tea Partier from Vermont tells her how bad the devastation from Hurricane Irene has been.
"We only just cut through the corner of Vermont," she says, empathetically. She has been trailing the Tea Party Express buses in a car labelled TEAm Hobbit Express, a reference to a Wall Street Journal editorial that derided Tea Party activists as "hobbits" living out a fantasy that America should default on debt.
Does she agree with the rebels? She has a PAC, she says, and "can't have an opinion" about candidates. But she gets it.
"We don't want to send an uncertain sound to voters who may look to us for conservative principles," she says. "I understand them."
What about the argument that Romney is electable, and Republicans shouldn't make the mistake they made in 2010 nominating Tea Partiers like… well, like Sharron Angle?
"That's not exactly what happened in my race," she says, smiling. "I'd like you to read the book, to find out what happened. I can tell you, I have a challenge in the Department of Justice of things that went on in that election."
On that cryptic note, I join the Tea Party Express rally as it is about to start. There is a stage in front of the decked-out bus, and a space between the stage and cameras. The crowd mills around behind the cameras. It's a fairly small crowd, and some of its members are liberals who just want to see the show.
"I'd put it at 250 to 300 people," says Levi Russell, who works communications for TPX. "It depends. Are we counting the media?
There's some visible support for Romney, but not too much, because a small pack of around 40 Romney supporters is standing to the right of the stage. They wear blue Romney T-shirts and carry grassroots-y signs: "Cap Obama, Cut Congress!" and "Less Debt with Mitt!" They keep to themselves. Even the guy dressed as a dolphin, "Flip Romney," is unobtrusive. I spot Judson Phillips, the acerbic president of Tea Party Nation, whose e-mails about the unacceptable nature of various Republicans get instant national headlines. Does he have a problem with Romney?
"The day we're saying you can't hear people talk is the day something's gone really, really wrong," says Phillips. "I absolutely agree he should be here. Even Ron Paul, who I have no use for, I hope he shows up. The people deserve to hear from all of them.
The crowd settles in for a two-hour line-up of music and speeches. Romney's the keynote speaker, which means that Buddy Roemer gets to be his warm-up act. He lights into the former governor of Massachusetts, though not by name.
"I'm the only guy running who doesn't take the big checks!" says Roemer. "We have [a] candidate running in the Republican Party who took a million dollar check and tried to hide it!"
When Roemer finishes, he's ushered into the TPX bus. There, he meets Mitt and Ann Romney.
"It was just a Hi and Hello," he says, exiting the bus. "I said my peace out there. He heard me."
Minutes later, the Romneys descend. They walk past the bus and stop for a 15-second video with a local businessman, the TPX logo right behind them. They cut through the crowd of Romney supporters, which avoids any possible ugliness, and gives Romney's entrance the feel of any other rally. His supporters rush into the space between the stage and the cameras, giving everyone the shots they needed for the news.
"Down in front!"
"Put the signs down!"
The Romney supporters back up. Ann says she'd wanted him to swear that 2008 was going to be his last. "Mitt knew maybe not to listen to me," she says, "because I said that after each pregnancy!" She departs, and he continues.
"I don't know that there are many in politics who spent less time in it than me," he says. Again and again he calls himself a "businessman." There is no specific mention of the "Tea Party." Instead, cleverly, Romney appeals to these hyper-patriotic voters by telling a story he told at the VFW convention, about choked-up Americans watching a military casket arrive at an airport.
"I'm convinced," he says, "that given the patriotism of the American people, that despite the challenges that we have, we can succeed if we draw on that patriotism of the American people."
Romney wraps and works through his friendly crowd, recognizing dozens of activists.
He ignores most media questions, but answers one: What did he think of the reception?
"Terrrrrrific reception!" he says.
And he's gone. By leaving early he misses out on a rapper who closes out the event with a song-cum-movement history.
We're actually forming 501c3s!
Every ONE of the states is drinking the tea!
(Photo by David Weigel)