May 28, 2012 -- In the long drama that is Mitt Romney's relationship with the Tea Party, symbolism can mean a lot.
Like the candidate's red-meat speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference that likely helped him win a straw poll. Or sharing the stage with Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a Tea Party love. And, most recently, meeting in secret with Rand Paul, a freshman senator who is the son of Ron Paul, the last Republican presidential candidate to drop out of the race, and favorite of the Tea Party brand.
National Review reported that Romney and Paul spoke one-on-one, in private, for a half hour, but details of the conversation remained sparse.
Tea Party leaders, however, say just the fact that they talked is encouraging. Many members of the Tea Party have been coming to grips with Romney as their party's nominee after a primary in which a handful of conservative candidates couldn't topple him.
Although it's hard to gauge exactly how much endorsements matter in presidential elections, a showing of support from Paul would probably help Romney shore up help from the Tea Party.
"Rand Paul has put out various ideas for balancing the budget, and he is a constitutionalist, and people respect that about him," said Jenny Beth Martin, a co-founder and national coordinator of Tea Party Patriots. "A lot of people within the Tea Party have a great deal of respect for Sen. Rand Paul, so if he makes an endorsement or not of any of the candidates, they'll at least look at that as they're paying attention to the pros and cons."
Tea Party members have routinely expressed their reluctance to vote for Romney. In exit polls from the Republican primary, people who said they supported the Tea Party remained split among him, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich. Romney performed significantly better with Republican voters who said they weren't strong backers of the Tea Party.
An ABC News/Washington Post poll from April reported that 41 percent of Americans said they supported the Tea Party.
The Tea Party is now seems to be focusing more intently on House and Senate races than the presidential contest. Inspired by the success of such candidates as Richard Mourdock who toppled Sen. Richard Lugar, Tea Party organizers said they can ring their message through the halls of Congress by electing conservatives in smaller races that supporters can get excited about more than Romney.
Jackie Bodnar, a spokeswoman for the Tea Party group Freedom Works, described what she called a "reverse coattails" strategy that she hopes will work in November: Tea Partiers enthusiastically voting for local candidates in November, and, while they're in the polling booth, pulling the lever for Romney as well.
"I'm definitely happy that he's talking with limited government conservatives like Rand Paul," Bodnar said. "It's a victory in and of itself that the candidates are speaking the Tea Party language."
Niether the Romney campaign nor Paul's office has released any details of the Wednesday meeting, and that's probably best for Romney. Democrats have routinely tried to tie him to the Republican Party's far right, especially to those who refuse to believe that President Obama was born in the United States.
Some people in the Tea Party are still just as sour on Romney as they were at the beginning of the race, even if they're resigned to voting for him. Judson Phillips, a Gingrich supporter who founded Tea Party Nation, said that "the Tea Party is not going to embrace Mitt Romney" because "he made a point during the election of running without it.
"I think Mitt Romney's just covering all his bases," Phillips said of Romney's talk with Paul. "He's walked away from us."