He’s tearing the tea party apart.

FreedomWorks, which had been participating in the Tea Party Express’s tour and had helped turn out activists at rallies during prior stops, decided it could no longer be affiliated with the tour, said Brendan Steinhauser, a lead organizer for FreedomWorks.

Instead, it began working with local New Hampshire tea party groups to organize a counter rally set for about the same time in the same park in Concord as Romney’s speech.

“We have to defend our brand against poseurs,” Steinhauser said.

FreedomWorks had voiced quiet displeasure with the Tea Party Express’s decision to grant speaking time at a rally in Utah earlier this summer to Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who has been targeted by FreedomWorks. But when Romney’s participation was announced, Steinhauser said that represented “a major line we would not cross.

“If we can’t make any distinction between any of the candidates, if we’re just going to provide cover for the establishment candidates, then what is the point of having the tea party?” Steinhauser said. “We’ve got to have a brand, and we can’t water down our brand.”

The TP dispute over Romney isn’t new. Remember when Tea Party Express chief Amy Kremer said back in June that her group would certainly support him if he’s the nominee? Five days later, Matt Kibbe of FreedomWorks hinted that some tea partiers might have no choice but to stay home if that happens, so problematic is Romney’s record for principled conservatives. The Tea Party Express will end up winning that argument eventually on “anybody but Obama” grounds, but I admit to being surprised that they’d accommodate Mitt right now, at a moment when he’s increasingly desperate to fend off Perry by shoring up his own conservative cred. It’s one thing for tea partiers to go to bat for him after he’s nominee, when Obama is the last obstacle before reaching the White House, but why give him cover when Perry, Bachmann, and probably soon Palin are all in contention for the nomination? He’s never attended a tea-party event before; anyone think he’d be keen to attend this one if Perry wasn’t suddenly up double digits on him? That is to say, even at a moment when he’s ostensibly proving his conservative bona fides, he’s acting out of obvious political expediency.

The other factor here for Romney is the primary calendar, which may end up as fluid as it was four years ago. Arizona’s already poised to move its primary up, which will force Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and the rest to move up too. The earlier people start voting, the less time the candidates have to shore up support in key constituencies. Mitt can’t delay his outreach to tea partiers even if he wanted to. Exit question: How will this affect his alleged Mediscare strategy against Perry? Most tea partiers are fans of entitlements too, if you believe the polling, but it’ll be surreal to watch Romney simultaneously launch a “protect our welfare state” campaign against Perry and a campaign of outreach to the most fiscally conservative movement in America.