PHOENIX — Tea Party supporters packed a Phoenix convention center Saturday to hear from two possible contenders for next year’s Republican presidential nomination, an election the conservative populist movement is determined to shape after helping the GOP make big gains in the midterm elections.
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty aimed to impress more than 2,000 members of the Tea Party Patriots with a full-throated call to “take back our country.” Texas Rep. Ron Paul, already embraced by Tea Party members, also spoke. The segment of engaged voters could prove vital to Republican White House hopefuls, but it’s an audience that is skeptical of the politicians courting their backing.
“They’re good speakers. They know what to say to inspire an audience. But I’m looking for substance I haven’t found yet,” said retiree Kaye Woodward of Livingston, Texas, who has been a mainstay at Tea Party events from Washington to the Alamo. “I haven’t been gung-ho for a candidate for quite some time. I’m looking for a truth teller, and I’m not sure I’ve found one yet.”
Potential candidates are trying to figure out how far they need to go to win over the Tea Party, and what spoils that would bring. Democrats are watching too, eager to portray President Barack Obama’s eventual challenger as beholden to the political far-right.
Pawlenty waved a copy of the U.S. Constitution after railing against “the royal triangle of greed: big government, big unions and big bailed-out businesses.” He also borrowed part of a slogan from a long-shot New York gubernatorial candidate who ran last year using the slogan “the rent is too damn high.”
“So here’s our simple motto: ‘The government’s too damn big!’ ” Pawlenty said.
For Pawlenty, the event is his most overt attempt to reach out to the Tea Party movement. Most of his fellow 2012 Republican presidential prospects passed on the event citing scheduling conflicts.
Paul, who ran for president in 2008 and is thinking of doing it again, urged Tea Party members at the conference to keep up the pressure for sweeping change.
“I wish I could say you were the majority, but we are still the minority,” the Texas congressman said. “But remember, an irate minority can accomplish a whole lot when you’re determined to do it.”
All the Republicans considered likely to run for president have said they believe in the core Tea Party principles of limited government and fiscal restraint, and they play up their own efforts to stymie the agendas of Obama and the congressional Democrats, most notably the federal health care overhaul .
But some Republicans would have a head start among Tea Partyers if they run. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann — who built a Tea Party caucus in Congress — both enjoy star status in the movement for their plainspoken ways and adherence to the movement’s core values.
Others, like Pawlenty, have had to do more to build their reputation. Pawlenty won plaudits for trying to stop the implementation of the health care overhaul in Minnesota, but he drew scorn from Tea Partyers for using billions of federal stimulus dollars to balance the state budget.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is viewed by some as an insider who backed a moderate Republican candidate over a conservative in a closely watched New York congressional election. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is weighted down by a state law he helped engineer that expanded health coverage to the uninsured.
Former school principal Charles Wendler, a Tea Party member from Las Cruces, N.M., said he’s not enthusiastic about those likely candidates.
“We need to have somebody who is going to go ‘POOF’ and appear and is going to take people by storm,” Wendler said. “We need to have a grass-roots candidate that doesn’t have the baggage that these folks have.”