The tea party is forcefully shaping the race for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination as candidates parrot the movement's language and promote its agenda while jostling to win its favor.
That's much to the delight of Democrats who are working to paint the tea party and the eventual Republican nominee as extreme.
"The tea party isn't a diversion from mainstream Republican thought. It is within mainstream Republican thought," Mitt Romney told a New Hampshire newspaper recently, defending the activists he's done little to woo, until now.
The former Massachusetts governor is starting to court them more aggressively as polls suggest he's being hurt by weak support within the movement, whose members generally favor rivals such as Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann.
Romney highlighted an outsider image at a Tea Party Express rally Sunday night in Concord. Romney may have run for office multiple times, but he has only won one election.
"I haven't spent my whole life in politics," he said. "As a matter of fact, of the people running for office, I don't know that there are many that have less years in politics than me."
Romney's shift is the latest evidence of the big imprint the tea party is leaving on the race.
Such overtures come with risks, given that more Americans are cooling to the tea party's unyielding tactics and bare-bones vision of the federal government.
After Washington's debt showdown this summer, an Associated Press-GfK poll found that 46 percent of adults had an unfavorable view of the tea party, compared with 36 percent just after last November's election.
It could give President Barack Obama and his Democrats an opening should the Republican nominee be closely aligned with the tea party.
Yet even as the public begins to sour on the movement, Romney and other GOP candidates are shrugging off past tea party disagreements to avoid upsetting activists.
That includes Perry, who faced a tea party challenger in his most recent election for governor and who has irked some tea partyers so much that they are openly trying to undercut his candidacy. Instead of fighting back, Perry often praises the tea party.
In his book "Fed Up!" Perry wrote, "We are seeing an energetic and important push by the American people _ led in part by the tea party movement _ to give the boot to the old-guard Washington establishment who no longer represent us."
There's a reason for the coziness. Voters who will choose the GOP nominee identify closely with the movement.