TAMPA, Fla. -- Is Newt Gingrich the Tea Party candidate?
The former House Speaker (R-Ga.) won 45 percent of the vote from Florida voters who "strongly support" the Tea Party, compared to Mitt Romney's 33 percent and former Sen. Rick Santorum's (R-Pa.) 17 percent, according to Florida primary exit polls.
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and former presidential candidate Herman Cain rallied to Gingrich's side over the past week, and the Gingrich campaign boasted they have the backing of 300 Tea Party groups in 36 states across the country, including 47 in Florida.
But for all that, the answer to the question is: sort of. The Tea Party, to the degree that it can be lumped together or even defined as a group, has given Gingrich an embrace that can probably best be described as half-hearted.
Moving forward, if Gingrich hopes to deliver on his threat to run all the way to the campaign in August, he will have to strengthen his built-in advantage in southern states by winning over Tea Party voters so that they support him more enthusiastically and in greater numbers.
It's a tall order. And Gingrich will first have to survive the next four weeks, a critical period where only a few states will hold primaries or caucuses before Super Tuesday on March 6.
Gingrich himself ignored a question Sunday about whether he represents the Tea Party, a term he rarely mentions. But his new line of attack this week against Mitt Romney -- that the former Massachusetts governor is getting big money donations from the same Wall Street firms that were bailed out with taxpayer funds in 2008 -- is another attempt to tap into the anger of grassroots conservatives in the political establishment in Washington and New York.
A similar tactic -- aimed at a similar demographic -- is Gingrich's charge that Romney has suppressed religious liberties.
Gingrich's spokesman R.C. Hammond didn't hesitate when asked if his boss is the Tea Party's representative in the Republican presidential primary.
"Damn straight we are. I don't think there's any question," Hammond told The Huffington Post. "If the Tea Party started with fiscal issues and keeping government spending down, Gingrich is the parent of the balanced budget. But beyond that, the Tea Party looks for candidates who are willing to challenge the status quo in Washington. Nobody challenges the status quo more than Newt."
Hammond stepped back a moment later from an all-out claim on Tea Party support. "It's something that Tea Party organizations need to come forward organically and do," he said.
But an informal survey of Tea Party activists and leaders across the country by The Huffington Post found a striking lack of enthusiasm for Gingrich, even among those who supported him in South Carolina, where grassroots support clearly drove Gingrich's big win.
"No one is thrilled with any of [the candidates]," said Kris Thompson, an officer in a Tea Party group near Greenville, S.C., who voted for Gingrich on Jan. 22. "Where you will see Tea Party influence will be in the General Election in November."
Thompson's sentiment was echoed in Florida, where 39 percent of Republicans who voted in Tuesday's primary said they were not satisfied with their choice of candidates. Gingrich took second in the state, with 31.9 percent of the vote to Romney's 46.4 percent.
Allen Olson, a former chairman of South Carolina's Columbia Tea Party, did not hesitate when asked if the Tea Party was settling for Gingrich.
"Yes," Olson said. "But since he's the only one who threw his hat in the ring, people are starting to see him as a Tea Party candidate."
Ryan Hecker, an activist from Houston who now works for the national group FreedomWorks, said that "there's a general lack of satisfaction in all of the choices."
"If Newt was actually coalescing most Tea Party support, he would have the nomination wrapped up," Hecker said. "Any strong Tea Party candidate would destroy Romney. Unfortunately, all such candidates chose not to run."
Tea Party activists have said they would have liked to see numerous other candidates for the GOP nomination, with former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie among the names most often mentioned.
But Bob MacGuffie, who helps run a Connecticut group called Right Principles, summed up the resignation that many Tea Party activists expressed to HuffPost.
"We have to play with the hand we have been dealt," MacGuffie wrote last week in a joint statement signed by his group and other grassroots organizations. "For that reason we have decided to support Newt Gingrich."
Ryan Rhodes, an activist in Iowa -- where Santorum narrowly won the Jan. 3 caucuses and Gingrich came in fourth -- said that Gingrich has risen to the fore because he has "been talking our language."
"With no perfect candidate in the race it has become more about finding someone to champion our beliefs in the arena of ideas," Rhodes said.
MacGuffie wrote that both Gingrich and Romney are a "far superior alternative to President Obama; however, both of them are flawed and problematic as far as we are concerned."
Gingrich has betrayed his "conservative rhetoric" for "political purposes," MacGuffie said, also citing "his well known lack of self-discipline, sometimes overbearing personality and personal baggage" as things that will be "pounced upon" by President Barack Obama in a general election.
Jenny Beth Martin, a co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, a national group, said that "Newt's win in South Carolina was a win for Tea Party activists there because over 100 local South Carolina Tea Party leaders endorsed him."
"Their pick won their primary. It's pretty cut and dry," Martin said.
But, she added, "in general and nationwide, Tea Party people are split on whether Newt or one of the other candidates would be the best person for the job of president."
Dave Zupan, who helps lead two Tea Party groups in Ohio, a key swing state, also had concerns about Gingrich's electability. He compared Gingrich to Sen. Barry Goldwater, the Arizona conservative who was nominated in 1964 by a movement within the GOP similar to the Tea Party. But Goldwater was crushed by incumbent President Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat, in the general election.
"While many folks, and myself included, like to see the fire come from Newt on the issues that are important to conservatives, we also feel Newt is not the best man to put up against Obama in November," Zupan said. "I would not like to see what happened in 1964, happen again in 2012."
"In order to oust Obama, we need the independent voter. Newt will bring with him far fewer independent voters than Mitt," Zupan said. "My favorite candidates have all fallen to the wayside at this point or never joined the fight. I stand by what I said back in October, we need to flip the Senate in 2012!"
Gingrich has claimed the mantle of Ronald Reagan in this campaign, and even mentioned at a debate last week that he attended a Goldwater meeting in 1964.
But Gingrich's critics were quick to point out that he was a state chairman for Goldwater's ideological opposite, the more moderate New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, in 1968. The Romney campaign sent out a quote of Gingrich's from a 1989 interview, where Gingrich said he had "spent most of my life" in "the classic moderate wing" of the GOP, as opposed to the "conservative activist right wing."
Nevertheless, Gingrich is a more forceful and provocative communicator than the other rock-ribbed conservative in the primary, former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.). Gingrich rode a strategy that featured chastising the media at debates back to relevancy in the fall, and he has clearly struck a nerve in the GOP over the last month.
Yet if Gingrich cannot close the deal with the Tea Party, and the base continues to resist Romney, Santorum may get another burst of momentum -- if he stays in the race long enough.
"If [Gingrich] stumbles, the organization may yet swing to Santorum," said MacGuffie, the Connecticut activist. "It's obvious we're opposing Romney's nomination and the struggle is as much about defeating the establishment's hold on the Republican nominating process as it is about defeating Obama."