Published January 29, 2012
Tea Party or establishment. That's the name of the game in the battle for the Republican presidential primary nomination.
But sometimes it's hard to determine who's who.
Frontrunner Mitt Romney has never worked in Washington but has accumulated dozens of endorsements from Republican officialdom. Newt Gingrich was House speaker for four years, and has lived in Washington ever since his 1999 departure from Congress, but he's running as the outsider who knows how to use his experience to crash the corrupt system and rebuild.
The expressions of support are an indicator where the divisions are lining up.
Sarah and Todd Palin have both said they're Gingrich fans. While the former 2008 vice presidential candidate hasn't expressly offered an endorsement, Sarah Palin has frequently worn the mantle of Tea Party spokeswoman.
On Saturday, businessman and one-time candidate Herman Cain jumped in at a Tea Party Express rally vowing his support for Gingrich -- for now.
"I'm not against Mitt Romney if Mitt Romney gets the nomination, I'm gonna support him. But right now, I'm hoping Newt Gingrich gets the nomination and I'm going to work, and try to see to it that he gets the nomination," Cain told Fox News.
On the flip side, Romney has pulled out former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, the speaker's former Senate partner on Capitol Hill, to back him up against Gingrich. And on Sunday, Arizona Sen. John McCain explained why Mitt's the man.
"I would say that we had some rather unpleasant experiences with Newt Gingrich and one of them was the government shut down in 1995," said McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential candidate. "My problems with Newt has been over earmark spending, billions and billions and billions. When Newt Gingrich became speaker they turned earmarks into an art form."
But sometimes the surrogates are equally conflicted in their stature.
Romney has won the support of South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, a Tea Party darling whose backing of Romney caused indigestion among her supporters. Romney also has support from outspoken personalities like Glenn Beck and syndicated columnist Ann Coulter.
On Sunday, Gingrich, who insisted the Republican Party "will not nominate a pro-abortion, pro-gun control, pro-tax increase moderate from Massachusetts," cited not-so-outsider, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani for criticizing ads by Romney surrogates against Gingrich. Gingrich also scored the backing of one-time presidential candidate and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson.
For the candidates, even their celebrity endorsements can sound a little bit like Tea Party vs. establishment. Tough guy Chuck Norris, who backed Mike Huckabee in 2008, is a Gingrich man. Over the weekend, Romney pulled off the backing of Hollywood's voice for conservatives, Jon Voight.
For his part, Gingrich has tried to be the heir apparent to Ronald Reagan, who came in as an outsider to become the ultimate Republican hero. Reagan's success is largely credited to his ability to bring in disparate sides to support his plans.
"I have had a long record as a very hard-hitting Reagan conservative and the idea that that record would be deliberately falsified by a Massachusetts moderate using money from Wall Street from the very companies who have been getting money from the federal government is really about as big an outrage as I've had in my career," he said.
For his part, Romney counters that Gingrich has earned heaps of cash being a consultant to Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored enterprise at the heart of the housing crash and repellant to many in Florida, home to one in four foreclosures in the nation.
"One of the greatest contributors to the collapse of housing here and across the country was government -- and the intrusion of government into the housing market," Romney said. "So Mr. Speaker, your trouble in Florida is not because the audience is too quiet or too loud, or because you have opponents that are tough. Your problem in Florida is that you worked for Freddie Mac at a time when Freddie Mac was not doing the right thing for the American people. And that you're selling influence in Washington at a time when we need people who will stand up for the truth in Washington."
But while Gingrich and others say a long primary may do the party good, for many Republican lawmakers -- Tea Party or otherwise -- the question will always come down to how to defeat President Obama.
"I took an oath as part of my 22 years in the Army to support and defend this Constitution," said Rep. Allen West, R-Fla. "So what I am looking for is the candidate that is going to do the best by honoring our Constitution."
"At the end of the day, what we absolutely know, it doesn't matter which wing of the party it is, we are united in purpose that we will make Barack Obama a one-termer," said Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, herself a one-time presidential candidate.
"I just got back from the World Economic Forum in Davos and what you hear everywhere is the decline of the United States, the concern of the incredible debt that the United States has right now," said Romney backer Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart. "There is one person who is the cause of that, and it is President Obama, it is a failed presidency."