Washington (CNN) - Mitt Romney has a message to Tea Party candidates nationwide: If you lose your Republican primary bids, stay on the sidelines.
The former Massachusetts governor on Monday warned the grassroots movement not to mount third party efforts in general elections, which he said would siphon votes from Republican nominees.
"If there is a conservative candidate that runs in the general election, then obviously, divide and fail is the result," Romney said in an interview with the conservative Web site Newsmax. "Hopefully Tea Party candidates will run in respective primaries and they will either win or lose. And if they win, they will go into the general. If they lose, they won't, and they will get behind the more conservative of the two finalists."
Romney explained that "dividing our conservative effort in the general elections" would "basically hand the country to Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, and that would be very sad indeed."
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin made similar remarks last month in a speech sponsored by the Arkansas Republican Party. "Now the smart thing will be for independents who are such a part of this Tea Party movement to, I guess, kind of start picking a party," she said, adding that the GOP would be the most natural fit for such activists.
Romney had kind words for the Tea Party movement. "I'm really pleased that the silent majority is silent no longer," he said, predicting that the movement "will have have an impact on this election."
"Not all the Tea Partiers are Republicans, not all of them vote for Republicans, but I think most of them will," he said.
The potential presidential candidate also dismissed his second place finish to Texas Rep. Ron Paul in last month's Conservative Political Action Conference Straw Poll, which he chalked up to libertarian collusion. Paul's win broke Romney's three year winning streak in the straw poll.
"The good thing about libertarians is that when they are called to show up somewhere they do, and when they get a call in the night saying, 'Hey, we need you to show up at CPAC or show up at a straw poll or show up at an event,' they will show up, and you've got to congratulate them for that," he said.
"But I don't think there is a growing portion of Americans who are, if you will, Ron Paul devotees, but he has an influence, and we welcome his participation in the party. It's a big tent party."
UPDATE: Paul spokesman Jesse Benton responded to Romney's claim.
"It takes a tremendous amount of both support and organization to win a straw poll with the prestige of CPAC's," Benton told CNN in an e-mail. "We are proud that Dr. Paul has both. The message of liberty and sound money is growing everyday, and Dr. Paul is honored to be one of the leading spokesman."