SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
Republican presidential candidates have just a few weeks left to try to shape their political fortunes before primary voting begins. Tea Party voters were expected to play a key role in the 2012 primaries. But with hopefuls like Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry low in the polls, Herman Cain now out of the race, the Tea Party vote seems to be very much in play. With many Tea Partiers seeming to rule out former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul may stand most to gain in New Hampshire.
New Hampshire Public Radio's Josh Rogers reports.
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JOSH ROGERS, BYLINE: Attend any New Hampshire campaign event with a Tea Party flavor and you'll come across more than a few voters like Mark Grenier.
MARK GRENIER: Mitt Romney, I would spit on his shoes. The man's flip-flops, health care, you can't trust him.
ROGERS: On this day, Grenier was attending a Ron Paul house party. He says his vote will be determined by simple logic: It will go to the candidate farthest to the right. But Grenier, who'd just finished pressing Paul unsuccessfully to agree that Iran poses an existential threat to Israel, says he's not sure the Texas congressman, or anyone else, clearly fits the bill.
GRENIER: I like most of what he has to say but I really just don't like the stance on Israel.
ROGERS: What about Gingrich, what do you make of him?
GRENIER: I like Gingrich. I like his ideas. I like his policies. But is he just going to be another politician?
ROGERS: That's exactly the question Ron Paul wants conservatives in early voting states to ask. Paul has an ad running on the Internet and on Iowa TV that takes aim at what he calls Gingrich's serial hypocrisy.
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REPRESENTATIVE RON PAUL: Everything that Gingrich railed against when he was in the House, he went the other way when he got paid to go the other way.
ROGERS: Negative campaigning is atypical for Paul. Polls in Iowa and New Hampshire show him in a tight race for second place. Campaigning in Portsmouth, Paul made clear he's fighting for the same conservative voters as Gingrich.
PAUL: He's all over the map philosophically and I would think that it wouldn't endear him to conservative Republicans.
ROGERS: Talk to prominent New Hampshire Tea Partiers about the former House speaker, though, and you'll find more tolerance than disdain.
TIM CARTER: He is not perfect but he's probably the best of the front-running candidates, and that's what you need to focus on.
ROGERS: Tim Carter leads the Lakes Region Tea Party, which held a presidential a straw poll last month. Newt Gingrich won handily. Ron Paul tied Herman Cain for a distant second. Carter says he came to back Gingrich after becoming disillusioned with Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann. Carter says he's looked at Ron Paul, but thinks it's scary to envision him as commander in chief.
CARTER: No matter what you say, he's a Libertarian. And when it comes to foreign policy, no way I would want this guy president and take a policy where we're just going to bring everybody back home and hope that nobody invades us.
ROGERS: As they weigh their choices, New Hampshire Tea Partiers have more than just issues to guide them. They also have personal ties. Newt Gingrich has put Tea Party activists at the center of his state operations. One directs his campaign; another advises on policy; a third coordinates volunteers.
Tim Carter says that sends a powerful message.
CARTER: Newt, he could not have hired better people in New Hampshire. They don't exist. He's got the cream of the crop.
ROGERS: But the Tea Party has never been a monolith. Jerry Delemus organizes the Rochester 912 Group and runs a Tea Party-affiliated PAC. He says he understands why some Tea Partiers see Gingrich as appealing.
JERRY DELEMUS: I think he could beat Obama. I think he would chew him up in a debate. I think he would decimate him.
ROGERS: Yet, Delemus says he has problems with Gingrich's policy shifts over the years. And he adds there are legitimate reasons to question Gingrich's values, both in his messy personal life and his status as a Washington insider.
DELEMUS: What do you want to replace Obama with, is what the American people need to ask themselves?
ROGERS: Delemus has thrown his support behind Michele Bachmann, who's barely registering in the polls here, and has little chance of winning. And that may be the divide within the Tea Party in this election, between those who will vote for the person who most closely shares their views, and those whose choice will be driven by electability.
For NPR News, I'm Josh Rogers in Concord, New Hampshire. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.