Some state political observers say the rise of the tea party has already affected the nomination race. "I think it contributed to the slow start," says Fergus Cullen, who chaired the state GOP during the 2008 election cycle. "Romney is realizing that this primary electorate is very different from the one he faced four years ago."
Both Romney and Pawlenty understand that tea partyers might be skeptical of quintessential establishment candidates like them, says Mr. Cullen, who sees Pawlenty's rhetoric getting more populist.
"I don't see any candidate making a direct appeal to the broad mainstream of the Republican Party in New Hampshire," says Cullen. "It's an opportunity for Huntsman. It's an opportunity for Romney. Eighty percent of the primary voters here are going to identify as conservative or Republican, but not tea party."
And because the New Hampshire Republican primary is "open" – that is, independents can vote in it – that will dilute the tea party's impact. Some 40 percent of New Hampshire voters are registered independent. Bottom line: So far, so good for Romney. A recent CNN/WMUR poll of likely New Hampshire GOP primary voters showed Romney at 32 percent, with the libertarian Congressman Paul a distant second at 9 percent. Mr. Gingrich and Giuliani are at 6 percent; Palin is at 5; and Ms. Bachmann, Pawlenty, Cain, and Huntsman are all at 4 percent.