This Labor Day weekend, Romney will make his first appearance at a major tea party rally when he meets the Tea Party Express bus tour as it stops in New Hampshire.
Right after that, Romney will make a previously unscheduled stop at tea party megastar Sen. Jim DeMint's (R-SC) Labor Day candidate forum in the Palmetto State.
Neither of these events are expected to be home turf for Romney. The Tea Party Express -- the tea party group that pushed hard for Sharron Angle, Joe Miller and Christine O'Donnell in 2010 -- has reached out in 2012 towards more mainstream Republicans, but Romney is not one of them. Tea Party Express chair Amy Kremer has made it very clear the healthcare plan Romney signed in Massachusetts is basically a dealbreaker to members of her group.
Oh, and the hugely influential tea party group FreedomWorks has set its sights on stopping the Romney candidacy during the primaries. There's that, too.
So, why is Romney going to spend his Labor Day having tomatoes thrown his way at tea party events? He has to. Perry is decimating him among tea partiers in national polling. Meanwhile, in South Carolina, Perry's even taking away Romney's less tea party-friendly base.
But the Romney campaign says the Perry surge has nothing to do with the stop at DeMint's event.
"The Romney camp dismisses the suggestion that this is in response to Texas Gov. Rick Perry's rise in the polls," The Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin reported.
"We're pleased we were able to arrange our schedule so that Gov. Romney can attend Labor Day events in both New Hampshire and South Carolina," Romney spokesperson Adrea Saul told Rubin.
And to be sure, Romney has been reaching out to the tea party in his own way all along. Unlike a total also-ran like say, Jon Huntsman -- who's made a cottage industry out of picking on tea party views -- Romney has been actively courting the modern GOP's powerful activist base.
"I think I line up pretty well with the tea party," Romney told the Daily Caller's Alex Pappas in June. "They want to see smaller government. So do I."
Polls of tea partiers and public statements from tea party leaders seem to suggest they disagree with Romney's assessment of their relationship. And so Romney will go and try to change their minds.
At the same time, he'll be taking steps toward taking on Perry directly. Rather than waiting for some Lone Star implosion, it increasingly seems a direct assault is needed if Romney is to beat the man who has usurped his frontrunner status. There are certainly areas -- immigration, government mandates and maybe even entitlements -- where the ties that bind Perry to the tea party could be at least stretched if not broken all together. Romney may try to exploit those. Beyond that, there's the whole electability angle -- Romney fares better than his rivals in head-to-head matchups with Obama, which might be a compelling argument to the tea party GOP which thinks Obama is some kind of nefarious socialist.
But Democrats see just another high-profile Romney flip-flop in the making with this weekend's mini-tea party tour, and it's possible the tea partiers themselves might see the same thing. The image Romney's enemies will want to project is of him is of the erstwhile frontrunner crawling slavishly towards DeMint. The image the Romney camp may have, however, is of their candidate manfully striding towards Perry. The image that prevails may have enormous bearing on the future of Romney's candidacy.
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