CONCORD, N.H. — Just a year ago, tea party activists came roaring out of the congressional elections eager to shape the looming race for the White House.
Things have not gone as planned.
Turned off by Mitt Romney’s style and evolution on several important issues, they have bounced from one candidate to another in hopes of finding a formidable alternative to the former Massachusetts governor to focus their enthusiasm.
After a series of disappointments — Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and businessman Herman Cain among them — the anti-establishment movement has settled, for now, on a favorite: former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, even though he has spent more than three decades in Washington politics.
With the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3 and tea party support fractured at best, some activists worry that the passion that defined the movement 13 months ago may become lost in the selection of the next president.
Infighting among conservative groups, a growing sense of pragmatism, and glaring weaknesses among the candidates have forced some tea party leaders to acknowledge their limits and shift their attention to Congress.
“I wish that we had coalesced behind one candidate earlier on. It’s not because of the tea party movement, it’s because there hasn’t been that candidate out there so far that has stirred the passion — the fire in the belly,” said Amy Kremer, president of the Tea Party Express. “Everybody wants to focus on presidential politics. I think we need to be focused on the Senate. That’s where we really, really need to be engaged.”
Lacking a presidential contender to rally behind, Kremer’s organization and others have begun eyeing congressional elections that could shift the balance of power on Capitol Hill next fall regardless of the presidential race winner.
Other tea party groups, despite a desire to play prominently in the White House contest, are left to focus on policy debates in Congress.
They’ve already helped shape the debate over federal spending, pushing the House to pass a balanced budget amendment while rejecting Democrats’ effort to raise new revenues to help close the federal deficit.
“We’ve changed the discussion on Capitol Hill and we’ve let the politicians know we get the game they’re playing,” said Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots. “We always said last year that after the November election that our work was just beginning.”
Despite fractures within the conservative movement, the presidential campaigns are courting tea party leaders, recognizing the potential political muscle of a grassroots movement that helped deliver the House to Republicans in November 2010.
Romney and Gingrich have met privately with Kremer, although the two men generally have followed different strategies in trying to capture the tea party vote.
Romney, Gingrich, Bachmann and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum answered questions from Martin about curbing federal spending and other tea party priorities, and gave their pitch to more than 100,000 supporters, during a national conference call conducted by the Tea Party Express Sunday.
Since his 2008 presidential bid, Romney has invested time and money in building relationships with Republican leaders inside and outside the tea party movement.
That investment helped produce endorsements from conservative favorites including South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and unsuccessful Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell of Delaware.
Romney had endorsed all three politicians in their most recent elections, donated thousands of dollars, and in the case of Haley and Christie, traveled to their states to campaign by their side.
Gingrich, after such a long Washington career, represents the kind of political insider that many tea party activists generally oppose. But Gingrich had used his now-defunct organization, American Solutions, to support the tea party movement for years. American Solutions was an original sponsor of the movement’s original tax day rallies, Kremer notes. Gingrich himself was one of their fi rst speakers.
“A lot of people don’t realize this, but he has been involved from the beginning,” Kremer said.
Gingrich’s critics say he’s bought tea party support by hiring influential activists.
In New Hampshire and South Carolina in particular, several staffers hired in recent weeks come from the conservative movement. Andrew Hemmingway, who leads his New Hampshire operation, is a 29-year-old tea party activist with no campaign experience. Gingrich’s national Coalitions Director, Kellen Giuda, helped create New York City’s tea party movement.
But that’s not enough to win over many grassroots conservatives.
Some reluctantly have embraced Romney. Others have latched onto Texas Rep. Ron Paul’s fiery candidacy. Many more say they’re simply not sure where to go.
Martin says her organization is gearing up to boost turnout in early voting states. Just don’t ask which candidate she’d like to be the nominee.
“What I’ve heard from a lot of tea party people is that they wish they could interchange the parts, like a Mister Potato Head — take parts they like from the candidates and put them together into a new candidate,” Martin said. “But we obviously can’t do that so we’re working with what we have.”
According to an AP-GfK poll from December, 55 percent of Republicans consider themselves supporters of the tea party, including 20 percent who say they are strong supporters of the movement. By comparison, 22 percent of political independents say they support the tea party, as do 10 percent of Democrats.
Tea party preferences contribute heavily to the prevailing sentiment in the GOP’s nomination contest. In the AP-GfK poll, for example, Republican tea party backers prefer Gingrich over Romney 42 percent to 26 percent. Among non-tea party Republicans, it’s Romney 29 percent to 23 percent for Gingrich.
Some say they’ve learned painful lessons from the 2010 elections, when the tea party helped nominate polarizing GOP Senate candidates who proved too conservative for voters in Nevada, Delaware and Colorado.
“The tea party in Colorado has become more pragmatic,” said former Colorado GOP chairman Dick Wadhams. “There is such an urgency to defeat Obama, I think the vast majority of tea party members are going to look at this election the way any Republican would.”
But not everyone agrees.
The tea party ally FreedomWorks, in particular, has aggressively opposed a Romney bid from the beginning. But the group, established by the conservative Koch family, is also cool to a Gingrich candidacy.
Both Romney and Gingrich “have been on the wrong side of some major policy debates,” according to Brendan Steinhauser, Freedomworks’ director of federal and state campaigns. “We do worry about whether they would follow through on their promises to shrink government if they get to the White House.”
In Massachusetts, the president of the Greater Boston Tea Party president says groups like FreedomWorks need to avoid bashing any of the Republicans.
“It seems really irresponsible to me,” Christen Varley said. “We all have to get together and back whoever it is in the end. That’s what I think is ridiculous. If the nominee is Mitt Romney, is FreedomWorks really going to sit out the 2012 election? Of course not.”
No it won’t, says Steinhauser.
But like the Tea Party Express and the Tea Party Patriots, FreedomWorks may divert its energy elsewhere.
“FreedomWorks is going to focus mostly on taking back the U.S. Senate,” Steinhauser said. “FreedomWorks’ members are divided in their support of various candidates and they would like us to hold off on any endorsements until we get through some of these early states.”
Associated Press writer Kasie Hunt in Washington contributed to this report.