POLITICS

Tea Party Activists Say Romney Not Much Better Than Obama, Resist Calls For Unity

ROCHESTER, NH -- Inside the long, low-slung white church here, close to the Maine state line and about 20 minutes from the seacoast, the 35 gathered Tea Party activists may not have noticed strong cross currents moving through their discussion of the 2012 presidential election.

But the contradictions were right there in the open: Some want unity against Obama; others want purity of political philosophy.

Those two positions will continue to compete, especially if former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney wins the Republican primary.

Romney's current status as front-runner in the primary is causing unease for conservatives who think President Obama must be defeated in 2012, but who are also decidedly not excited about Romney.

The health care plan Romney created for Massachusetts is a heresy to many conservatives. They see that state's mandate to buy health insurance as proof that Romney is a big government technocrat who does not share their ideals.

For those that believe government is too big and too intrusive, Romney is not the candidate who would do enough to reverse its decades-old trend.

"The White House is critical," said Jerry DeLemus, a leader of the Rochester 9/12 Project. "I mean we don't want Obama in there again, that's for sure. But I gotta tell ya, we don't want somebody in there who's gonna list left anyway, but just go slower. What's the point?"

DeLemus added, "If we elect someone who is going the same direction but is going half speed, instead of full speed ahead, we're going to end up in the same place anyway."

DeLemus, a 56-year old former Marine, works in home remodeling, dresses with casual panache and speaks in a slightly nasal voice. He didn't mention Romney by name in his speech during the meeting inside the Salmon Falls Church of Christ, where the group meets on the second Monday of each month with an average of around 50 attendees.

But over a meal at the local Friendly's restaurant later, DeLemus said that Romney does fit the description he gave during his remarks.

"He was listing left," DeLemus said of Romney's time as governor. "He was actually listing pretty hard left. Of course, it's Massachusetts, but so what?"

If Romney is the Republican nominee, DeLemus said he would write in another candidate on the presidential ballot.

But Ovide Lamontagne, a candidate for U.S. Senate last year who has now set his sights on New Hampshire's governorship after losing in the GOP primary, spoke to the 9/12 group and had kind words for Romney.

During Monday's Republican debate in Manchester, Romney "made a very good point," Lamontagne said. "He said, 'Anyone on this stage will do a far better job as president of the United States than this president on his best day.' That kind of a theme needs to continue."

"Now they're going to have a rough-and-tumble primary, I'm sure," Lamontagne said. "It's gonna be testy sometimes, but in the end, we've got to make sure that we nominate that strong conservative who can take on Barack Obama and can win, and we need to be part of that team."

Lamontagne urged the group -- one of the most active local Tea Party organizations in the state -- not to splinter their vote against President Obama in the general election by supporting a third party or write-in candidate.

"Let's talk about sticking with this one team, and the more you stick with this Republican party that more conservative it's going to be," he said.

An attendee at the meeting, former state Sen. George Lovejoy, rose from his seat in the second row of pews and said he was sending a petition to Tea Party groups asking them to take a pledge not to support any third party candidates in the general election.

"Each one of us will pick one of those [Republican primary] candidates to support, and we should, and we should work very hard for that candidate," Lovejoy said. "But we gotta remember, when the primary is done there is one winner, and so we have to resolve now that whoever that winner is, then we will get behind and work for that winner."

Most in the room applauded. But it was apparently lost on many that Lamontagne and Lovejoy's statements were in stark contrast to the fiery speech DeLemus had given a few minutes earlier.

"If you have a candidate that you think is going to serve this country the best, is going to serve this republic the best, you have an obligation to vote for that candidate -- not for who's going to win, but for that candidate," DeLemus had said.

His wife, Sue DeLemus, who helps lead the Rochester group and was elected to a spot in the state House last fall, said she had a problem with Lovejoy's proposal, specifically because of Romney.

"Right now at this very moment I won't sign that pact. I don't think Romney is the man," she said.

Lamontagne was received warmly by the group as a bona fide Tea Party candidate. They cheered loudly for him to jump into the governor's race. But he was clearly on a different page from the DeLemuses when it came to the presidential race.

"I think all of them are acceptable candidates. If it's Romney, if it's [Michele] Bachmann, if it's Herman Cain, I think that they can unify the party so long as we stay focused on the end game, which is challenging Barack Obama and winning," he said in an interview.

But when pressed about comments he made during his speech to the Tea Party group, Lamontagne had to contort himself to argue that Romney is an acceptable candidate and does not violate the principles he had spoken of.

During his remarks, Lamontagne had spoken extensively and strenuously against government dictating decisions to citizens.

"Sometimes I pass through New Hampshire and I see the little broken down houses or, you know, people who are struggling, and they want to make it on their own. Who am I to judge to them?" Lamontagne said. "Who am I to judge them and who is government to judge them?"

"It's not the government's job to intervene in the lives of people anymore than it absolutely has to: criminal acts … or if there's some misuse of property rights of somebody else. That's when government kicks in, not to sit in judgment on how we live our lives. And that's an important thing."

When asked about Romney's health plan in light of those remarks, Lamontagne said, "I have to live with that. I don't like it particularly."

"I think [Romney's] still evolving his position and his proposals as to what the federal role should be in health care," he added.

Lamontagne allowed that Romney's health plan was "a mistake," but said it was not a disqualifying one. He said if Romney were running for governor, it would be a bigger problem.

"He's running for president of the United States and does not subscribe to the view that at the federal level there should be [an individual] mandate," Lamontagne said.

That is the same argument Romney has made, resting his case on the defense that states are sovereign and should be allowed to experiment with solutions relevant to their specific circumstances.

But the Republican front-runner has also defended his Massachusetts program. He said in the Monday debate that there were "some similarities" between his program and Obama's federal Affordable Care Act, but also "some big differences."

"Obamacare spends a trillion dollars ... We can't afford more federal spending," he said. However, Massachusetts government spending on health care has gone up dramatically in the wake of the plan Romney signed in 2006.

"Secondly, it raises $500 billion in taxes. We didn't raise taxes in Massachusetts. Third, Obamacare takes $500 billion out of Medicare and funds Obamacare. We, of course, didn't do that," Romney said.

"Ours was a state plan, a state solution. ... That's the nature of why states are the right place for this type of responsibility," he concluded.

Romney did not address the individual mandate in the debate. That component of the health care law remains a key sticking point for many conservatives, who don't see any difference between a federal mandate and a state mandate, especially when it comes to a philosophy of government.