Romney's Tea Party Outreach Met With Skepticism

Mitt Romney's debut on a major Tea Party stage has gotten off to a rocky start, as local and national activists protest what they claim is the presidential candidate's half-hearted attempt to court their members.

Speaking Sunday evening in New Hampshire, the former Massachusetts governor said career politicians cannot fix the nation's problems.

The appearance was Romney's most anticipated speech before a tea party crowd. Roughly 200 people crowded into a local park for a rally hosted by the Tea Party Express.

But Romney did not change his stump speech for the new crowd. He didn't even utter the words "tea party."

Tea Party Express Chairman Amy Kremer said she wasn't offended and gave Romney credit for showing up.

Following his appearance in New Hampshire, Romney will attend a forum Monday in South Carolina set up by Tea Party-aligned Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C.

But some Tea Party groups say the candidate until now has been unresponsive to their appeals. The Tea Party-tied FreedomWorks organized a counter-demonstration Sunday ahead of Romney's speech to hammer his record and perish the thought that the ex-governor is one of them.

"He has not been consistently pro-market, pro-limited government, against government overreach. And that's what we're concerned about," FreedomWorks President Matt Kibbe told Fox News.

Representatives from a dozen local groups were expected to demonstrate in New Hampshire before Romney's speech. They're also handing out anti-Romney literature titled, "The Issue with Romney is the Issues."

Their biggest complaint is the Massachusetts health care plan Romney helped pass as governor of that state -- the program included a requirement to buy health insurance, well before the same mechanism showed up in the Democrats' national health care overhaul. Romney repeatedly has said he opposes President Obama's health care overhaul, and that he understands what works in Massachusetts might not work in other states.

Kibbe, though, called the state plan "anathema to Tea Party values." The groups also say Romney has rebuffed prior attempts to meet with him.

"We have requested you meet and talk with New Hampshire's liberty groups many times since you announced, and heard nothing," Jerry DeLemus, chairman of the Granite State Patriots Liberty PAC, said in a statement. "Taking pictures in front of a Tea Party bus is nothing more than a photo opportunity and we refuse to be used as anyone's political prop."

But Tea Party Express co-founder Sal Russo said the whole dust-up strikes him as "silly."

He said Tea Party Express has invited all the leading Republican presidential candidates to speak at its tour stops, and dismissed the implication that the group should start picking and choosing which candidates can speak.

"I think it was a silly little press stunt that they pulled here," Russo told Fox News. "I think the American people, as well as the Tea Party people, want to hear from these candidates. ... I believe an informed electorate is the best thing for a democracy."

Romney's campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

The candidate, who entered the race with a reputation as a business-friendly moderate, has made a public effort to convince Tea Partiers he's on their side.

Romney told Foster's Daily Democrat in New Hampshire he thinks many Tea Partiers would support his bid.

"The Tea Party isn't a diversion from mainstream Republican thought," Romney said. "It is within mainstream Republican thought. And I want to appeal to the Tea Party voters."

The push comes as Romney's front-runner status slips, following the entry of Texas Gov. Rick Perry into the race. The latest Fox News poll showed Perry leading the field with 26 percent, and Romney in second place with 18 percent.

Democrats have picked up on the friction among Tea Partiers over Romney's outreach.

Bill Burton, a former White House spokesman who now works at a pro-Democrat fundraising group, wrote in a memo over the weekend that Romney's Tea Party events mark a "sudden shift" for the ex-governor. "Tea Party members have already trashed Romney's pandering," he wrote.

FreedomWorks media coordinator Jackie Bodnar said the group is not trying to be disrespectful of Romney's speech Sunday. She described it as a "peaceful" demonstration, but said Tea Partiers are just trying to have their voices heard after getting a "non-existent" response from Romney in the past.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.