Romney lines up insiders

Times Staff Writers

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who had a limited national profile just a few years ago, is matching the better-known Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) step-for-step in the race to round up support from an important audience: members of Congress and Washington lobbyists.

Call it the “insider primary.”

Today, as Romney formally launches his bid for the White House with a speech in Michigan, what might have been a longshot campaign can boast that many influential GOP lawmakers and lobbyists have judged him best able to go the distance.

More members of Congress have announced support for Romney than for McCain: 26, including former House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).


And though some Washington hands backing Romney are not household names, they include luminaries of key Republican constituencies, such as former Rep. Vin Weber (R-Minn.), revered by economic conservatives and antiabortion activists; Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho), his chamber’s standard bearer for gun-rights advocates; and John J. Castellani, a Beltway lobbying powerhouse with ties to the top echelons of American business.

The support of these insiders has positioned Romney to raise money and build a campaign organization in the early-voting primary states. It says much about the problems facing McCain, who despite a national profile is finding challenges in building the impression that his victory in the GOP primary is inevitable.

Where Romney is a relative newcomer to national politics after one term as Massachusetts governor, McCain is a 20-year Senate veteran and war hero already tested in a presidential campaign. But McCain’s style and frequent departures from party orthodoxy, on such issues as campaign finance and tax cuts, have alienated many party colleagues in Congress.

“He’s hurt himself with the Republican rank and file,” said Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), who is leaning toward supporting Romney and who invited the former governor to speak to a group of House Republicans in January. Many times, “McCain is the spoiler on legislation. House members have gotten tired of it over the last six years.”

Polls show that Romney is running a distant third among GOP presidential hopefuls, behind McCain and former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, and that the vast majority of Americans do not know enough about him to form an opinion.

Romney’s Washington endorsements, coming from lawmakers and lobbyists whose own political clout depends on backing a winning candidate, may help confer legitimacy on his campaign.

With many Republicans doubtful that Giuliani can win the party’s nomination because of his relatively liberal stands on social issues, Romney is trying to establish himself as the strongest alternative to McCain. Like Giuliani, Romney in the past had endorsed abortion rights and gay rights.

But he now is aggressively repositioning himself as a conservative on those issues, and is courting conservative lawmakers -- as well as evangelical and social conservative leaders -- who can validate his transformation.

Romney’s effort is also paying off in help in fundraising and field organizing in key states. For example, he has secured the endorsement of popular Republican Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, an early primary state; the other senator from the state, Lindsey Graham, is backing McCain.

McCain is concerned enough about being seen as defeated in congressional endorsements that he touts his own list of 21 backers.

“He enjoys a lot of support in both chambers,” McCain spokesman Danny Diaz said. “We’re going to continue to reach out to elected officials across the country.”

Endorsement dynamics are akin to schoolchildren choosing teams: Some influential people are on everyone’s wish list.

Weber, a Republican lobbyist, is one of those first-round picks. He is a respected political strategist with close ties to the White House and Congress. (He served on Capitol Hill from 1981 to 1993.)

Weber supported McCain in 2000, but Romney pursued Weber’s support assiduously. In one-on-one meetings in Washington and Boston, Romney impressed Weber with his command of major policy issues, such as energy and healthcare.

Weber eventually decided to back Romney, in part because he believed the message of the 2006 election was that voters were disillusioned with Washington insiders.

“The Republican Party badly needs a face from outside Washington,” Weber said.

His endorsement also provides a window into how Romney is managing to win support from social conservatives -- Weber strongly opposes abortion -- even though the former governor has not always sided with them.

Weber said that in talking to Romney, he was persuaded the former governor had undergone a conversion as authentic and durable as that of Ronald Reagan, who did not declare his opposition to abortion until he ran for president in 1975.

Benjamin Ginsberg, a Republican election law expert who has counseled presidential candidates and party organizations for decades, was another backer sought by the major GOP campaigns.

After reviewing the candidates, he chose Romney. Ginsberg’s endorsement provides a stamp of GOP tradition, power and competence, particularly in the fundraising area.

Another Romney backer, Castellani is president of the Business Roundtable, an organization of chief executives of the top U.S. corporations. He is considered among the half a dozen or so most influential lobbyists in Washington, with experience in raising money, organizing issue campaigns and getting business engaged in national politics.

In a measure of what Washington insiders can do for a candidate, lobbyist Ron Kaufman and other Romney backers arranged a fundraiser for his political action committee in October. The $100-a-head event drew a crowd of 400, large enough that the fire marshal almost closed it down.

Kaufman and a host committee of 21 lobbyists are now planning a $2,300-a-head fundraiser for Feb. 27 in Washington.

Romney moved to expand his lobbying-community reach in mid-January, inviting a group of K Street figures to a meet-and-greet breakfast. Among his catches: Jade West, a lobbyist for the National Assn. of Wholesaler-Distributors, a leading trade group representing nearly 40,000 companies. West, a former Senate GOP leadership aide, has promised to use her ties to build support for Romney on Capitol Hill.

The House is a target-rich environment for Romney because it is a conservative bastion home to many Republicans who dislike McCain.

The Arizona senator has infuriated GOP colleagues with his failure to support Bush’s tax cuts in 2001 and 2003; his support for an immigration plan that would allow illegal immigrants a path to citizenship; and his signature campaign finance law, which many Republicans believe put their party at a disadvantage in 2006. During debate on the bill in 2002, McCain insulted many colleagues by saying the existing campaign system corrupted everyone in it.

“When he said we’re all corrupt, I said, ‘Speak for yourself,’ “said Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-Santa Clarita), a Romney backer.

“It would be tough for him to work with members of Congress on the things the president has to work on,” McKeon added.

People close to Hastert were surprised that he endorsed Romney so early. But they were not surprised that he turned his back on McCain. Hastert and McCain had a bitter public spat a few years ago in which Hastert questioned the senator’s credentials as a Republican.

To David Norcross, a lobbyist and one of New Jersey’s representatives to the Republican National Committee, the early endorsements have established the validity of Romney’s candidacy.

“Early on, there are questions about whether a candidate is real,” Norcross said. “This list lays that question to rest.”