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Court ruling pumps up tea partiers -- but not their enthusiasm for Romney

By Shannon Travis, CNN Political Reporter
June 30, 2012 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Tea partiers have long viewed Mitt Romney with skepticism
  • The Massachusetts health care bill he signed while governor is a big frustration for tea partiers.
  • Florida tea party activist: "He's not our candidate. But he's the candidate."
  • Indiana tea partier: "At this point, we'll take him -- we'll hope to mold him into more of our liking."

(CNN) -- Before the ink completely dried on the Supreme Court's landmark decision on the nation's health care law, pundits summed up its political impact: It handed President Barack Obama a huge policy win -- but gave Mitt Romney a political battle cry.

Emotions high after Supreme Court upholds health care law

The court's affirming of the Affordable Care Act has angered and pumped up conservatives even more to repeal Obamacare. But are they now at full-throttle enthusiasm for a Romney presidency?

The answer: No.

"I think that people are fired up (after the court ruling)," said Brendan Steinhauser, director of state and federal campaigns for national tea party booster FreedomWorks.

"I think that we understand the importance now of beating Barack Obama. Romney is the candidate. So I think this helps him. But I don't want to mistake that for being a huge groundswell of support for Romney as much as it a huge stand in opposition to Barack Obama."

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Billie Tucker, a well-known figure in Florida's tea party movement, was more blunt.

Activists will support the former Massachusetts governor, she said, "not because they love Romney -- because (tea partiers) haven't gotten the love from the Romney people either.

"But the reality is: he has promised to repeal (the health care law)," Tucker said. "He's not our candidate, but he's the candidate. So we have to help the candidate get elected."

Tea partiers have long viewed Romney with skepticism. Since its birth in 2009, the movement has advanced staunchly conservative principles and worked to elect like-minded candidates instead of what they deem as "RINOs" (Republicans in Name Only).

Many of them view Romney as such a political creature -- claiming he repeatedly flip-flopped during his term as governor.

Romney and his supporters have long denied that assertion.

Arguably, tea partiers' biggest frustration with Romney is the Massachusetts health care bill he signed into law as governor. Like Obamacare, that signature legislation -- dubbed "Romneycare" by some -- contained an individual mandate compelling citizens to buy health insurance or face a penalty.

Romney has argued that the Massachusetts health care law was a unique fix for his state -- not one to be duplicated on the national level.

Ruling cements Obama's political legacy, experts say

But the similarities between the two plans are a primary reason why tea partiers say they will not be all that enthusiastic about voting for Romney in November.

Supporters of the health care legislation celebrate after the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in a 5-4 ruling Thursday, June 28. Supporters of the health care legislation celebrate after the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in a 5-4 ruling Thursday, June 28.
Health care and the high court
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Photos: Health care and the high court Photos: Health care and the high court

Massachusetts health care mandate included tax penalty

"I think that it's very clear that to get rid of Obamacare, you're going to have to have a different president," said Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots -- the nation's largest tea party group.

When asked if the Patriots' activists will stump hard on Romney's behalf, Martin said, "We're not doing that. The campaign for Romney will do that, I suppose. And the Republican Party will go do that."

As Martin pointed out, though her group advocates the election of staunch fiscal and constitutional conservatives -- the Patriots don't specifically endorse political candidates.

"I think most people that I've talked to in Indiana say, 'Yes, we'll definitely vote for Romney,'" said Greg Fettig, co-founder of the Indiana tea party group Hoosiers for a Conservative Senate.

"We won't like it as well as if it could have been someone else. But, you know, he's infinitely better than Obama."

Fettig said Indiana tea partiers were "stunned" to learn of the Supreme Court's decision, likening it to "an all-out war." And activists have resolved themselves to "unseat as many Democrats as we can."

Yet Fettig added: "There are some people disappointed with Romney. But they know, at this point, we'll take him -- we'll hope to mold him into more of our liking. But if not, we'll have to take some incremental steps there and then hope, next time around, we get a more conservative president."

Fettig said some tea partiers have talked about voting on principle -- potentially writing in other candidate names on the presidential ballot.

"If you do that, you've given a vote to Barack Obama," Fettig said.

Christina Kbo, a strategist for the National Tea Party Federation, said, "(The Supreme Court decision) makes November 6 all the more critical," citing increased energy toward conservative get-out-the-vote operations.

Kbo cited a conference call among many activists on Thursday after the Supreme Court decision. While there was mention of helping Romney, Kbo said: "If you had been on the call, you probably would have been very shocked to hear that Romney's name didn't really come up that much."

"This is bigger than the presidency ... this is about the future of the country. And we have to focus on sound candidates and support those candidates to office not only at the presidential level but at the Senate, the House, the governors, the state senate, the mayor -- the entire ticket."

To be sure, Romney does have staunch supporters within the tea party movement. After withdrawing from the GOP presidential race, Michele Bachmann endorsed Romney. On Thursday, the Minnesota congresswoman told Fox News, "This was my signature issue when I ran for president. But I will tell you that Mitt Romney has told me on more than one occasion, looking in my eyes, 'Michelle, I will repeal Obamacare.'"

Also, how much enthusiasm tea partiers have for Romney may matter little. Because they are galvanized against the president, they could increase conservative turnout at the polls, likely boosting Romney's chances.

But should Romney win the White House, he will still have to look over his shoulder for wary tea party activists.

"I think people on our side view Mitt Romney as someone who is a politician who had the ambition to get elected to office as a governor, as a senator and now as the president," Steinhauser said. "And we don't know what's in his heart. We don't know what his ideas really are. He has changed positions a lot. And tea partiers look at the health care mandate in Massachusetts and they didn't like it."

Given that concern, Steinhauser said tea partiers would "absolutely" hold Romney accountable for overturning Obamacare should he win the White House.

"The way you do that is by taking over the Senate and making sure that the candidates you elect ... we (also) hold them accountable to their promises."

Tea party groups target Senate after presidential 'disappointments'

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