WASHINGTON — The tea party didn't get its man in Mitt Romney. But the movement got one of its ideological heroes in the Republican presidential ticket's No. 2 slot.
Romney's selection of Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate marked a huge victory for the tea party. Its roaring influence helped Republicans take back the House in 2010, gaining 63 seats. Since then, its no-compromise positions on deep budget cuts set the parameters of high-profile fiscal fights on Capitol Hill.
Now, to the Democrats' delight, the tea party is shaping the battle for the White House, a development that will probably quiet critics questioning its relevance and embolden activists trying to prove its staying power.
"It's a big step toward what the tea party has been trying to accomplish," said Matt Kibbe, the president and CEO of FreedomWorks, a national group aligned with the tea party. "It gives people a reason to be more enthusiastic about the Republican ticket."
The tea party – like the GOP's conservative base as a whole – has only reluctantly backed Romney, unsettled by moderate positions he once took on social issues and a healthcare law he signed in Massachusetts that is similar to the overhaul championed by President Barack Obama.
But those who have long doubted Romney's true conservatism say they can now rest assured that the former governor will have a thorn in his side, elbowing him cheerfully but persistently to the right.
In Ryan, the tea party sees someone who adheres strictly to its core principles – individual rights, distrust of big government and an allegorical embrace of the Founding Fathers. Tea party activists exalt his willingness to address the large-scale Medicare and Social Security cutbacks he says are needed to rein in out-of-control spending.
Ryan is at once a mainstream Republican and a tea party darling. He is genteel and even-mannered as he warns of the implications of a coming debt crisis. He is equally fluent in the revolution-infused rhetoric that tea party supporters gleefully gobble up.
"Our founders made it really explicit. Our rights come from nature and God, and not from government," Ryan said Sunday at a campaign rally in High Point, N.C., prompting a standing ovation from supporters who pumped their fists in the air.
Unlike the GOP running mate of four years ago, Ryan has an image that seems far more likely to resonate with Republicans across the political spectrum. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, with her penchant for snubbing the GOP establishment, arguably had just as many GOP critics as backers.
But not all tea party activists are thrilled with the selection of Ryan, who, despite his cost-cutting budget and strict positions on social issues, voted for the bank bailout in 2008 and supported the auto industry rescue that Romney vocally opposed.
"We're not talking about a tea party candidate, we're talking about a guy that Mitt Romney chose as V.P.," said Ryan Rhodes, a prominent tea party leader in Iowa. "When there's these other things that are out there, we're going to hold his feet to the fire."
But those who gripe are in the minority.
In his debut weekend, Ryan found himself on the receiving end of displays of affection from a disparate array of Republican leaders who rarely see eye to eye. Tea party leaders – such as Rep. Allen West, R-Fla., and former presidential candidate Herman Cain – came to his defense against attacks from Democrats. Likewise for establishment types such as House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
"I've worked closely with Paul for years and this isn't a political game to him. This is truly about saving our country and making the future better for our children," South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, a driving force behind underdog, tea party candidates for Congress, said Sunday.
For Republicans such as DeMint, the rise of Ryan to vice presidential running mate caps a string of recent victories that have helped quell concerns that the once-vibrant group had lost its luster.
But in recent months, tea party activists helped kill a proposed sales tax hike in Georgia, pushed to have taxpayers send public school children to private schools in Pennsylvania and drove a referendum blocking state health insurance mandates in Ohio.
And in the battle for control of the Senate, tea party-backed candidates Richard Mourdock in Indiana and Ted Cruz in Texas have come from behind to upset establishment favorites in GOP primaries – in Mourdock's case, defeating longtime incumbent Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind.
Obama's team claims to be giddy over Romney's choice of Ryan, whose budget proposals have breathed life into the Democratic argument that Republicans want to rob seniors of the entitlement programs their health and financial security depend on.
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