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Tea party not settled on any one candidate

By Janet DiGiacomo, CNN
updated 10:56 AM EST, Tue March 6, 2012
 Tea party activist William Temple attends the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington.
Tea party activist William Temple attends the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Tea party movement has not settled on GOP candidate
  • Followers are diverse in terms of conservative values and their own beliefs
  • Gingrich, involved in tea party's start-up, gets both support and criticism
  • Ron Paul gets accolades from Georgia Tea Party this week

(CNN) -- Ask different tea party volunteers in the days before Super Tuesday who the leading presidential candidate is and you will get different answers.
Rick Santorum has a lot of support in our unscientific polls, said Mark West of the Chattanooga, Tennessee, Tea Party.

Ron Paul is closest to our core values, said Michael Wilson of the Cincinnati, Ohio, chapter

We liked Michele Bachmann, said National Tea Party Coalition co-founder Michael Patrick Leahy.

The difference of opinion only proves what tea party volunteers say about the movement as a whole: Its followers are diverse in terms of conservative values and their own beliefs, which according to the various chapter leaders explains why no candidate is separating himself from the pack for the movement's support.

"In my opinion and through the informal polls our volunteers have taken, it's all over the place," said Tom Maloy of the Georgia chapter. "The tea party doesn't endorse candidates, it endorses policies."

Leahy said, "None of the candidates is an aligned with our core values as we would like." He identified the core values as constitutionally limited government, fiscal responsibility and free markets.

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Leahy served as a delegate for Mitt Romney in the former Massachusetts governor's 2008 presidential bid -- prior to the tea party's existence. Now? "Romney doesn't talk our language," he said. "He has tried to reach out to the party, but it's been lukewarm."

Leahy, who voted early in Tennessee, revealed that he cast his ballot for Rick Santorum, even though he doesn't like Santorum's tax policy of giving special tax breaks to manufacturers.

Newt Gingrich, who was involved in the movement's start-up, receives a combination of support and criticism. Leahy credits the former Speaker of the House with early involvement in the tea party, but is quick to add that Gingrich proved to be inconsistent and even tried to manipulate rather than help the movement reach its goal.

"That's a fair assessment," West said. "Many people in the movement could vote for him, but he is not the first choice. He has made some interesting and questionable choices that has caused membership to be concerned that he is (not) a leader in the conservative movement."

West said Bachmann did have a lot of support, but he throws Rick Perry and Herman Cain into that category, too. "The tea party is often maligned in the media as being racist, but the support given to Herman Cain shows the movement is about policy, not skin color."

Wilson, in the crucial Super Tuesday state of Ohio, said all candidates have been around enough to have records that are spotty. He credits the field with trying to engage their group.

"Romney's campaign has reached out to me," he said. "There have definitely been efforts to get information in front of us, but little in the way of outreach, otherwise."

Many grass-roots events have been planned for this weekend ahead last before Tuesday's vote, Wilson said.

A candidate who is getting accolades from the Georgia chapter this week is Ron Paul.

Maloy said Paul is the first presidential candidate to sign the chapter's "Marietta Declaration," which challenges candidates and elected officials to end what they believe are government abuses of the Constitution. The document, released in February, was sent to politicians in both parties, including President Barack Obama, with the invitation to sign and support.

Georgia Tea Party board member Jim Jess said of Paul's signature: "It is certainly consistent with the strong pro-Constitution stance that he has taken during the campaign."

Does that make Paul a tea party shoo-in for Super Tuesday?

"Super Tuesday is wide open," Maloy said. "I've heard Gingrich has a strong lead in Georgia and Virginia. Santorum may have an edge in Ohio. But at the end of the day, when all the votes are counted, we will still be up in the air."

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