By KRISTEN WYATT
DENVER - Long skeptical of Mitt Romney, tea party activists are either warming up to the GOP presidential front-runner or reluctantly backing him after abandoning hope of finding a nominee they like better.
Whatever the reason, the former Massachusetts governor who is coming off of back-to-back victories in Florida and Nevada now is picking up larger shares of the tea party vote than he did when the Republican nomination fight began. And that fact alone illuminates the struggles of the nearly three-year-old movement to greatly influence its first presidential race.
"We haven't gone away," insisted Amy Kremer, chairwoman of the national Tea Party Express. But, in the same breath, she acknowledged lower expectations and a shift in focus to Senate races over the White House campaign. She also pleaded for patience, saying: "Anybody that thinks we are going to change things in one cycle or two cycles is fooling themselves."
Tea party activists across the country entered their first presidential contest this year expecting to hold major sway over the Republican race following a 2010 congressional election year in which their favored candidates successfully knocked off a string of insiders in GOP primaries in Colorado and elsewhere.
The movement influenced the presidential race early on, with candidates from Romney on down parroting the movement's language and promoting its agenda of restrained spending to curry favor with its adherents.
But the coalition was greatly fractured and plagued by infighting. It also watched as one favored candidate after another lost standing or quit the race, among them Georgia businessman Herman Cain and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann. The remaining candidates - Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul - have attributes that tea party backers like but they face huge hurdles in knocking Romney off his stride.
That's left many in the tea party shifting focus to Romney, a candidate viewed by many as most likely to unseat President Barack Obama, even if he doesn't vociferously bang the drum of their top issues.
"We're warming up to Romney," said Brian Walker, a tea party member and 62-year-old sheet metal contractor in the Colorado mountain town of Florissant. He raves about Santorum but said he's leaning toward Romney because he wants to support the candidate he views as the likely nominee.
Such perceptions may be one of the reasons Romney has seen a bump in support among tea party followers even though the movement has long been irked by Romney's tentative embrace of it and evolution on several issues it holds dear.
In South Carolina last month, exit polls showed that only about 1 in 4 self-described tea party supporters backed Romney in the primary, which Gingrich ended up winning. But 10 days later, 41 percent of tea partyers in Florida's primary chose Romney as he cruised to victory there. And in Nevada, entrance polls showed that Romney won 47 percent of the tea party vote on Saturday, crushing his rivals in the state.
Romney could perform just as well in Colorado and Minnesota caucuses on Tuesday. He won both four years ago. Since then, both states have been heavily influenced by the tea party.
In 2010, tea party supporters in both states claimed credit for usurping well-funded GOP insiders and producing conservative gubernatorial nominees, Dan Maes in Colorado and Tom Emmer in Minnesota. Both lost the general election, despite big Republican successes elsewhere.
Colorado Republicans also nominated a conservative tea party favorite, Ken Buck, over a better-funded candidate, former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton. But Buck also lost the general election to the appointed Democratic senator, Michael Bennet, who had never before run for political office.
Mindful of the tea party strains in both states, Romney's rivals are playing to the movement in hopes of engineering comebacks.
"I ask you to reset this race. Create an opportunity for someone who can speak to Americans about what America is all about," Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, said Saturday in northern Colorado.
Some tea party activists argue that the GOP puts itself at risk if it ignores conservative critics of Romney, even if tea party influence appears diminished.
"I do not believe in this idea that you vote for the lesser of two evils. The lesser of two evils is still evil," said Erika Vadnais, 48, an engineer from Colorado Springs who attended a Paul rally last week.
Kremer, the Tea Party Express chairwoman, disagreed and predicted that tea party conservatives will recover from divisions between now and November.
"At the end of the day, the movement will come together to defeat Barack Obama," Kremer said.
Deputy Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta in Washington contributed to this report.
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