Sound politics, but surprising nonetheless coming from a guy who’s positioned FreedomWorks as a sort of Tea Party HQ.

Armey said Paul’s “bigger mistake” came in his victory speech after securing the nomination, when he said “I have a message from the tea party. … We’ve come to take our government back” and added: “This tea party movement is a message to Washington that we are unhappy and we want things done differently.”

Armey said “I think that hurt him more than (the Civil Rights Act exchange), because the principles of liberty won that position and he won by adhering to them.” He quipped that Paul’s reasoning for positioning himself as a tea party leader might have been “alright, I don’t have a big enough target on my back. Since the left hates the tea party and they hate me, let’s see if we can get ‘em to double down on me by me claiming to be the leader of the tea party.”

“Don’t ask for more of what you really don’t want,” Armey said. Pointing out that Paul “ran as a Republican – he won the Republican primary,” Armey suggested that Paul and other tea party-backed candidates can remain true to the movement’s limited government principles without becoming targets by declaring themselves tea party leaders.

He recommended that tea party-backed candidates stick to local media outlets and Fox News, which is regarded as friendlier turf for conservatives.

He’s an old pro so he’s framing this in conservative-friendly terms as a problem of media bias, but doubtless he’s aware of the polls showing a downturn in tea-party support among the public generally (and younger voters in particular). In fact, just as I’m writing this, MSNBC is airing Chris Matthews’s hour-long hit piece accusing TPers of being some sort of militia front group, the American equivalent of the “political wing” of Hamas. The goal, of course, is to kookify the movement’s image so that it’s a liability for Republicans come November. Armey, realizing the damage that’s already been done thanks to Paul’s hedging on the Civil Rights Act, Sharron Angle’s past membership in some sort of neo-Bircher party that worried about the North American Union, and standard-issue crankery of the sort being pushed by this guy, is simply out in front of the curve. When a brand’s Q Score is slipping, there’s only one thing to do — find a new brand, at least until the votes are in and counted. Exit question one: When does Rubio start shying away from the “tea party” label? Exit question two: “Republicans for Reid”???