South Carolina's Tea Party Mulls GOP Candidates

Much has been made of how conservative Christian voters have struggled to select one Republican presidential candidate. The same can be said about the Tea Party which has largely been critical of front-runner Mitt Romney.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

The Tea Party movement that has powerfully affected American politics no longer seems certain who to support.

MONTAGNE: Tea Party activists drove Republicans to control the House in 2010. Even before that, they reshaped the Republican Party, defeating candidates they considered too moderate in Republican primaries.

INSKEEP: In the presidential primaries, though, some candidates who appealed for Tea Party votes have imploded. The frontrunner is Mitt Romney, even though many activists are skeptical of him, and even though Romney has passed up on some chances to appeal to them.

MONTAGNE: But when Tea Party activists held a convention yesterday in South Carolina, the next state to hold a primary, they did not unite behind anybody else.

NPR's Don Gonyea was there.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: There is one thing that the Tea Party has no doubt and no disagreement about this year. Here's how South Carolina's Republican Governor Nikki Haley put it yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

GOVERNOR NIKKI HALEY: President Obama is the hardest part about my job. And he has to go. He absolutely has to go. Let's fight to make that happen.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

GONYEA: But during her speech to this Tea Party convention, a group that helped her come from obscurity to the governorship in 2010, Haley did not mention the man she's endorsed for president: former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.

Speaking later to reporters, she said Romney is a true conservative who knows the economy and who can beat President Obama. She was asked why Romney was not coming to the Tea Party Convention while he was in town.

HALEY: I would certainly welcome him making a speech, and I think he should. These are good people. They know their issues and they, you know, would love the opportunity. And, you know, I'm certainly going to see if he's got the time. I'd love for him to be here.

GONYEA: Romney did not stop by. But two others did: former Senator Rick Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Santorum played to a common Tea Party theme, that politicians go to Washington and compromise. He turned it into a question about the election.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

RICK SANTORUM: We want people who are going to stand for their convictions. We want people that have the courage to go out and do what's right because it's right. Well, now the challenge is to you. Are you going to compromise?

GONYEA: Next up was Gingrich. He, too, warned that unless true conservatives - including the Tea Party - stick together, Romney will be the nominee.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

NEWT GINGRICH: South Carolina has a chance to change history on Saturday. But to do that, we have to unify the Tea Parties and we have to unify the conservatives in a very straightforward way.

GONYEA: By that, he means to vote for him.

In this audience, there were plenty of people ready to do just that, but also plenty willing to go with Santorum. And there were some Romney backers - a minority, to be sure.

But retired Dr. Ira Williams, of the Spartanburg Tea Party, said this.

DR. IRA WILLIAMS: It is an easy call.

GONYEA: Tell me why.

WILLIAMS: I believe that, number one, he has made far more big, big decisions than all the rest of them combined that has had a positive effect on thousands and thousands of people.

GONYEA: Williams says he respects Romney's time as a corporate executive.

But not happy with Romney is 54-year-old Tea Party member Judy Adams, who was also unhappy with Governor Haley for endorsing Romney.

JUDY ADAMS: To be honest with you, it upset me. She has every right to endorse who she wants to. I think as our leader of our state - and she has a lot of Tea Party backing - I think it frustrated a lot of us. That's my - again, that's my personal belief.

GONYEA: But however deep the divisions go, they are about the primary, not November. You hear it over and over among the Tea Party, that they'll all be motivated to vote for any Republican against President Obama.

Don Gonyea, NPR News in Myrtle Beach.

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