Is Mitt Romney Setting Up a Tea Party 'Sister Souljah' Moment?

The Tea Party currently has Nancy Pelosi-like poll numbers nationally.

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The Boston Globe has an interesting story pointing out that once-and-future GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney is not trying to suck up to the Tea Party movement, a fact which distinguishes Romney from virtually every other potential Republican presidential candidate. According to the Globe (h/t TPM):

As the former Massachusetts governor lays the groundwork for a possible second presidential run, he has largely shunned Tea Party activists in key primary states, including the state he must win if he enters the race, New Hampshire. Thus far, Romney is on track to present himself as the establishment candidate--a responsible, mainstream Republican leader with the necessary financial resources and credentials to beat President Obama.

Off the top of my head, I can think of three good reasons for Romney to keep his distance from the Tea Party.

First, as mentioned, the rest of the field seems to be vying for Tea Party support. By standing apart, Romney stands a chance of having the party establishment coalesce behind him. And while the Tea Party may be ascendant in the GOP, and may wield outsized influence in the primaries, the movement has not always demonstrated an ability to coalesce around a single candidate. If, say, Sarah Palin, Rick Santorum, Tim Pawlenty, Newt Gingrich, and Mike Pence fracture the Tea Party votes Romney alone as the establishment figure could triumph. This scenario is bolstered by the fact that, as the Globe notes:

Without a Democratic primary contest in the upcoming election, Romney supporters can count on a wave of independents casting ballots in New Hampshire and South Carolina — which allow nonparty voters to participate in the primary.

Second by using the Tea Party as a foil Romney can combat one of his own biggest negatives: his reputation for being a political weather vane (see his positions on abortion, gay marriage, and gun control for example). As one Tea Party activists tells the Globe, Romney is “a fraudulent conservative. I don’t trust the guy. Be it health care, be it social issues, he’s a chameleon."

But by refusing to kowtow to the Tea Party Romney could build a counter-narrative. “I don’t think you’re going to see a different persona than the persona that’s been there for 20 years. That would be jarring. That’s not going to happen,” Romney adviser Tom Rath tells the Globe. [ See editorial cartoons about the Tea Party.]

Finally, Romney could be positioning the Tea Party for something of a Sister Souljah moment with an eye toward avoiding a Sharron Angle moment. The 2012 election will turn on the economy. If unemployment is down and voter confidence is up, Obama will be very hard to beat; if we’re still looking at a jobless rate north of 9 percent, the president will be highly vulnerable—unless a Tea Party-dominated GOP produces an Angle-like nominee (see Palin, Sarah, who is viewed positively by 17 percent of Americans and negatively by 49 percent according to the latest NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll). Indeed, while the Tea Party has huge influence in the GOP it remains unpopular nationally, with 29 percent viewing it very or somewhat favorably and 38 percent viewing it very or somewhat negatively—Pelosi-like numbers (26 very or somewhat positive and 40 very or somewhat negative) that the GOP nominee will want to avoid being tarred with. By steering clear of the fringe, Romney could position himself as the kind of acceptable Republican able to take advantage of a faltering Obama. If, that is, he can get the nomination. [ See photos of Palin and her family.]