MANCHESTER, NH -- Tea Party leaders made their first appearance at a New Hampshire presidential primary debate at the GOP candidates' forum here Monday night.
Billie Tucker, one of the leaders of a large and active Tea Party group in Jacksonville, Fla., roamed the post-debate media "spin room," where reporters go to talk with party and campaign operatives. Tucker looked a bit out of place but was clearly enjoying herself. She said she was there because her group is working with CNN to co-host a Republican debate in September.
"It's a very big production," she said, having watched much of the behind-the-scenes work that went into making Monday's debate happen.
As for the debate itself, Tucker gave the GOP field good grades but said that nobody emerged as a clear winner.
"I probably would have loved to have seen some fireworks between some of them ... They were all really nice to each other," she said. "As they all said at the end, any of us could be president, but somebody's got to come out as the leader. Somebody's got to emerge here."
When asked about former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Tucker didn't openly criticize him, but her lack of praise was an indication of the challenges Romney faces with grassroots conservative organizers.
Romney had a good night Monday, spared criticism by his fellow Republicans. He carried himself well and hit all the right notes. But that didn't impress Andrew Hemingway, a local Tea Party group leader from New Hampshire.
"I don't think he has an answer for health care," Hemingway said.
Hemingway also said that former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty missed a big opportunity during the debate to gain ground on Romney when he was asked to expand on his criticism of the health care program Romney signed into law in Massachusetts in 2006. Hemingway has been wooed personally by Pawlenty over the past few months, and has said he likes the candidate. But he was unsparing in his post-debate criticism.
"He should have gone after [Romney]. That was a great opportunity. I don't think he came across maybe looking like he was above it all," Hemingway said. "I think it was more like, 'Uh, I don't really know what to say.'"
Tea Party Express leader Sal Russo, a longtime political operative from Sacramento, and Amy Kremer, the group's spokeswoman, also roamed the media hall before and after the debate.
Whether the Tea Party will play the same role in 2012 as it did in 2010 is one of the big questions facing the Republican party in this election. Tea Party activists say member engagement and turnout will be just as enthusiastic as last fall. But so far in 2011, grassroots Tea Party members have been much quieter than last year, making it hard to gauge how many will return to the scene in an election year.