Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.
In many ways, the story of the 2012 Republican primary has been the inability of Mitt Romney to win over more than a third of self-identified "strong Tea Party supporters" or "very conservative" voters. If he had received the support of those voters, even a slim majority of them, the race would almost certainly have been over weeks ago.
Where Romney hasn't yet succeeded with most grassroots conservatives and Tea Partiers, he's had remarkable success in the past two weeks gaining the support of their leaders. Senators Jim DeMint and Pat Toomey offered strong words of support for Romney, each coming as close to endorsing as possible without actually offering formal backing. Others went further: Senators Mike Lee and Marco Rubio both endorsed last week. Representative Paul Ryan formally endorsed on Friday. And Senator Ron Johnson announced on Meet the Press not only that he was backing Romney but also that Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell asked him to coordinate messaging between the presidential campaign and Republicans in Congress. In the space of two weeks, the candidate who struggled to convince Tea Partiers to join him had gotten the support of many of the most prominent elected leaders of that movement.
It would seem, then, that everyone associated with Romney's campaign would avoid saying anything to erode this fragile trust or to jeopardize this budding relationship.
But in a Washington Post article on Romney's thinking about a running mate published this weekend, someone from "Romney's team" may have done just that.
The conventional thinking has been that after a long and divisive primary campaign, the challenge of uniting the GOP would force Romney to pick a running mate with strong appeal to tea party activists and evangelicals. But Romney's team thinks he may be liberated from that pressure if he can finish off remaining rivals Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul in the next few weeks.
"Liberated" from having to choose a candidate who appeals to evangelicals and the Tea Party? It's the kind of formulation that would only be used by someone who sees those groups as liabilities, not assets.
It is not likely to sit well with Tea Party supporters. "Brilliant, I always thought Romney needed to moderate his image," deadpans one aide to a conservative senator.
Does it truly reflect the thinking of "Romney's team?"
Top Romney strategist Eric Fehrnstrom says, forcefully, it does not. "I have no idea where this uninformed speculation comes from, but it's not accurate." The campaign, he adds, is focused "on securing the nomination, not on making a ticket."
Other Romney advisers point out that the candidate has made clear that any running mate vetting process would start by ruling out pro-choice candidates, a test that would appeal to many evangelicals. Romney has also said several times that Marco Rubio would be on anyone's list of possible running mates, including an unprompted mention last July.
Will it matter to Tea Party members that several of their most visible spokesmen have endorsed Romney? We may have a better idea from exit polls Tuesday night. Romney may well get the nomination without strong backing of rank-and-file Tea Party members, but it's hard to imagine him getting elected without their enthusiasm. After all, it was on the strength of the Tea Party and other conservatives that Republicans won historic gains in the 2010 midterm elections.
Romney has made great strides with Tea Party leaders in the past two weeks.
Can he build on it?