Philadelphia, Pa. — On Monday night, standing beside a 20-foot white marble statue of Benjamin Franklin, Mitt Romney met the Tea Party. Or, rather, the Tea Party met Mitt Romney, embraced him, and made him an honorary member.
Even in the City of Brotherly Love, the hearty reception was a tad surprising.
Romney, for his part, seemed pleasantly startled by the fist-pumping standing ovation and raucous cheers that greeted his entry, to the strains of Kid Rock’s anthem, “Born Free.” “What a welcome from the Tea Party,” Romney said, grinning, at the top of his remarks.
In certain conservative quarters, some may remain unwilling to stick a fork in the Republican primary, but here, among activists from New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware, Romney has already been accepted — quickly and painlessly.
No longer is the conservative base fixated on debating Romney’s merits. Instead, tea-party leaders, just a few steps from Independence Hall, speak eagerly about the upcoming battle with President Obama. Romney is the vessel and potential antidote for their Beltway-related frustrations.
He may not have been their favorite, but now he’s their guy, and they’re okay with that.
“I’ve been with Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain,” says Bill Miller, a New Jersey–based tea-party organizer, who wears a hunting cap decorated with Romney’s logo. “Romney was backed, right out of the gate, by the people I fight all of the time. But he’s getting cheers now because he’s our nominee, and there’s a lot of work that needs to be done before November.”
Robert Mansfield, an African-American congressional candidate and Iraq War veteran from north Philadelphia, agrees. “The Tea Party understands that Romney is the person who may be able to beat Obama,” he says. “I’m not surprised by the reaction. The Tea Party really wants to win, and its members instinctively understand that Romney is the candidate who could make this close.”
There was also a sense among conservatives, who huddled together under the Franklin Institute’s grand rotunda, that progressive forces will wage a brutal campaign this fall, and that anything but unity on the right could lead to electoral disaster. The loud protests outside of the Romney event, which included screaming Occupy allies who tried to crash the party, was a reminder to many that internecine warfare, though fun, needs to be eased. “This kind of thing is what we’ll see all year,” says Don Adams, a local tea-party director who clashed with the rowdy protesters.
Of course, Romney’s popularity with the Tea Party is hardly sky-high. There were some grumbles from some attendees, such as Marc Scaringi, a Pennsylvania Republican and United States senate candidate, about whether Romney will keep coming to rallies of this type. “He’s making strides,” Scaringi says. “I’m hopeful. He’s just got to make sure he sticks to limited-government principles. As this campaign moves ahead, I’d like to see some Ron Paul–like consistency, too.”