As Palin hits trail, some old fans wary

Tea Party movement support not a given

Tea Party activists admire Sarah Palin’s conservative views and star power, but few in New Hampshire seem ready to commit to supporting the former Alaska governor’s run for president. Tea Party activists admire Sarah Palin’s conservative views and star power, but few in New Hampshire seem ready to commit to supporting the former Alaska governor’s run for president. (John Walker/The Fresno Bee via Associated Press)
By Shira Schoenberg and Mark Arsenault
Globe Correspondent | Globe Staff / May 28, 2011

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WASHINGTON — Alaska’s former governor Sarah Palin is revving up a bus tour this weekend from Washington, D.C., north to the Granite State as a preamble to a possible presidential campaign, but elements of the Tea Party movement are not quite ready to jump on board.

“I love her to death,’’ said Lori Ingham, a Palin fan and Tea Party sympathizer from Franklin, N.H., the critical early primary state Palin is expected to roll into next week. But Ingham is not encouraging Palin to run — not yet.

“So much of the media attention is negative,’’ said Ingham. “I think she needs time to sit back for a while, and then when the time is right, run.’’

Two more Republicans are exploring whether the time is right: Governor Rick Perry of Texas said yesterday he would consider running after the state Legislature ends its session Monday. And former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, who topped a CNN poll of GOP potential contenders yesterday, will visit New Hampshire Thursday, the day Mitt Romney officially kicks off his presidential campaign in the Granite State.

Tea Party activists admire Palin’s conservative views and incandescent star power, but few in New Hampshire seem ready to commit to supporting her for president. Many activists are equally excited by businessman Herman Cain and Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, a Minnesota Republican who has hinted she will get into the race.

And, they say, Palin must campaign in the New Hampshire primary the traditional way — by showing up in living rooms and town halls, not with a single stop on a bus tour.

“If a candidate is not in the state doing retail politics, shaking hands with activists, they can’t win here,’’ said Corey Lewandowski, director of Americans for Prosperity New Hampshire, which has been inviting Palin to New Hampshire since 2009, with no response. This will be her first visit to the state since the 2008 campaign.

Nationally, Tea Party leaders are intrigued by a potential Palin candidacy, but they say the antiestablishment conservative movement is too fractured to move monolithically toward any one candidate so early in the race.

“Most Tea Partiers know Palin is going to run — the big thing is, so what? What does she bring?’’ said Shelby Blakely, a spokeswoman for the Tea Party Patriots, a national group that sprung up from Tax Day rallies. “What the Tea Party is looking for is not political rhetoric but actual details and a plan, and something more than just vague platitudes.’’

Tomorrow Palin will begin what she calls her One Nation tour, which kicks off in Washington, to coincide with the annual Rolling Thunder motorcycle demonstration in support of American troops and POW/MIA issues. Palin will visit historical sites, including Civil War battlegrounds Gettysburg and Antietam, in a bus emblazoned with the words: a “fundamental restoration of America,’’ a nod to the conviction among some Tea Party activists that America has strayed from the traditional values that made the country great. For Tea Partiers who passionately oppose the policies of the Obama administration, “restoration’’ is a conservative equivalent of Obama’s 2008 theme: change.

Palin’s road show is bound to attract intense media attention. Her challenge will be to use the renewed spotlight as a jump-off point to generate the organizational support and campaign donations needed to compete in the early primary states.

“Sarah is somebody who doesn’t play by the rules of the game; she invents her own,’’ said Jim Bratten, Indiana state coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots. “She doesn’t have a campaign committee or an exploratory committee. She’s doing something completely different.’’

Bratten said Cain, Bachmann, and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum all enjoy some Tea Party support, and that former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, having moved away from some past moderate positions, is gaining momentum. As for Romney, a WMUR poll in February in New Hampshire showed he attracted considerable Tea Party support, but nationally the former Massachusetts governor is an unacceptable choice for many in the Tea Party movement because of his support for mandatory health insurance in his state.

The apparent lack of an early national Tea Party groundswell for Palin may have much to do with the perception among many activists that Palin is too polarizing a figure to attract independent voters in a general election.

“Right or wrong, there’s a feeling she might not be able to beat Barack Obama,’’ said Richard Viguerie, a conservative author and activist who runs the Conservative HQ website.

For several months, Palin has been polling at around 5 percent support in New Hampshire, according to Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. She has the lowest favorability ratings in the state of any potential Republican candidate. “She’s become increasingly less popular the further we get from the 2008 presidential election,’’ Smith said.

Smith said Palin’s mid-term resignation as Alaska governor and the perception of her as a TV star rather than a politician have hurt her image. The audience Palin most appeals to nationally — blue collar social conservatives — is not a large group in New Hampshire.

“The social conservative wing isn’t here,’’ Smith said. But there is an active Tea Party presence in the state. Nearly half of those surveyed in the WMUR poll of likely Republican primary voters supported the Tea Party movement. A nationwide New York Times/CBS poll a year ago found that 18 percent of respondents supported the Tea Party movement.

Unlike her potential competitors, Palin has not campaigned in New Hampshire. “I don’t really know a lot about Palin, in the sense that I haven’t met with her, haven’t interacted,’’ said Chris Buck, chairman of the Dover Republican Committee and a Tea Party sympathizer.

But the race for the Republican nomination is wide open and nobody among the current crop of contenders has locked up Tea Party support. “I think there is a bit of a vacuum,’’ said Ken Emanuelson, a member of the steering committee of the Dallas Tea Party. When it comes to picking a candidate with Tea Party values, “people will know it when they see it, and they’re not seeing it right now.’’ That means Tea Party conservatives will be willing to listen to Palin’s pitch if she runs, he said. “But she is going to have to earn it.’’

Steve Fontaine, a systems engineer who founded a Tea Party chapter in Barrington, recognizes Palin’s star power but believes Bachmann “understands the essence of the Tea Party,’’ particularly its emphasis on limited government and controlling debt. He likes Cain, “who says all the right things.’’

Fontaine doesn’t yet know whom to support. “I’ll wait until all the debates,’’ he said. “Some people will waffle on some issues. I’ll eliminate those people.’’

Jerry DeLemus, chairman of the Granite State Patriots Liberty PAC, an umbrella organization for Tea Party and other political groups in New Hampshire, said he expects libertarian-leaning Republicans to focus on Palin, Bachmann, and Texas Congressman Ron Paul.

“My only concern,’’ he said, “is if we get too many good conservatives running we may end up with a moderate because it might split the vote.’’

Shira Schoenberg can be reached at Mark Arsenault can be reached at