Mitt Romney trying to get conservatives in his corner

GREENSBURG, Pa. — Mitt Romney is the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, and for some conservatives that is a pill still too bitter to swallow.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee came to the podium at a county GOP event in Greensburg, located in a key conservative swath of Pennsylvania, days after Romney rival Rick Santorum dropped out of the race and effectively ceded the nomination to Romney. But she couldn’t bring herself to mention Romney by name.

“We’re going to have a presumptive nominee for 2012 really soon,” she said, allowing that she was excited about the November election.

It was a pre-general-election reminder that the problem that haunted Romney throughout the Republican primary season still lingers: A sizable portion of evangelical and tea party voters aren’t in his corner.

Santorum, whose insurgent campaign was powered by voters reluctant to back Romney, has yet to endorse his former rival (though he has stripped his website of anti-Romney material). In a reminder of the bitter battle between the two men, fundraising pleas from Santorum that landed in mailboxes Monday said the GOP would be “crippled” if Romney was the standard-bearer. (His campaign insists the fliers were mailed before he dropped out of the race).

Since Santorum’s exit, Romney’s campaign has redoubled its attempts to court prominent conservative and evangelical leaders. Aides leading the effort believe that the desire among conservatives and evangelicals to defeat President Obama will ultimately trump suspicions about Romney’s credentials. But the bigger question for the campaign is whether they can get those voters involved beyond pulling the lever for Romney.

Carolyn Thomson, a 69-year-old from North Huntington who attended the GOP dinner in Greensburg, is one of Romney’s targets.

“I’ll vote for anybody but Obama,” Thomson said. But she continues to have misgivings about Romney’s past support for abortion rights and his crafting of a Massachusetts healthcare plan that was a precursor to the president’s federal plan. “There are some things I’m not really pleased about. Honestly, I think he’s a RINO — a Republican in name only.”

The former teacher added that she doubted she would work as hard for Romney as she would have for Santorum.

Others in key states were more skeptical. In Iowa, expected to be one of the hardest-fought states in November, influential Des Moines radio host Steve Deace isn’t ready to promise his vote.

“The audible voice of God will have to give my moral conscience permission to vote for someone who opposes me on everything,” Deace said. Romney, he added, “is more loathed by social conservatives than any Republican presidential candidate I can think of.”

Romney’s advisors say those kinds of assertions are not borne out by the facts. In some recent primaries, exit polls showed Romney beating both Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich among the party’s most conservative voters.

Peter Flaherty, a Romney advisor who has long guided the candidate’s efforts to make inroads among social conservatives and evangelicals, noted that the campaign has kept up a running dialogue for many months with leaders like American Values President Gary L. Bauer and Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, as well as with others at conservative groups that oppose abortion and gay marriage rights. The talks continued, he said, even after the individuals endorsed other Republican candidates.

When Santorum dropped out, Romney advisors reached out to many of his most prominent backers — congratulating them on a hard-fought campaign and arguing that they want to harness that energy for the fall campaign against Obama.

“We wanted to let them know that this is not support that we ever take for granted,” Flaherty said. “The most effective conservative movement is a united conservative movement and an excited conservative movement.”

One sign of the effort came Thursday, when it was announced that Romney would give the commencement address May 12 at Virginia’s Liberty University, founded by conservative leader Jerry Falwell. Over the last week, Romney also has netted a series of endorsements that the campaign believes will help nudge grass-roots conservatives into action, including from the National Right to Life organization, which has chapters in every state that could assist the Romney campaign’s get-out-the-vote operations. The candidate also won the backing of Maggie Gallagher, co-founder of the National Organization for Marriage and an early Santorum backer, who stated that Romney would be a “pro-life, pro-marriage, pro-religious-liberty president.”

Still, leaders like Ralph Reed, chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, noted that Romney has major work ahead given exit polls showing that he drew less than one-third of the evangelical vote during the primaries, while Santorum and Gingrich drew more than 60%.

“He’s got to multitask over the next four months or so, because he needs to reach out to independents, women, Hispanics, young people — other nontraditional constituencies for the Republican Party,” Reed said. “Before he can really fully pivot to independents, his first and immediate task is to consolidate support among conservatives. Unifying the party and evangelicals are at the center of that.”

Polling this week showed some evidence of consolidation around his candidacy. And Romney’s vice presidential pick will be a key signal to many of those voters.

The campaign hopes a Santorum endorsement would help Romney reassure some conservatives. But the former Pennsylvania senator declined to offer any explicit guidance to thousands of supporters on a conference call Monday: “As far as how you vote, that’s up to you,” Santorum told them. “I haven’t supported any candidate at this point, so that’s really up to you.”

A number of conservatives outside of the campaigns said the process of building a unified party will take time. Past nominees like Bob Dole and John McCain struggled in those efforts and ultimately lost their bids for the White House.

Bob Vander Plaats, who heads the Family Leader organization in Iowa and endorsed Santorum shortly before his surprise Iowa caucus win, said that although the base “may not be inspired” by Romney, “the base is inspired to defeat Barack Obama.”

The challenge for Romney, he said, is to energize rank-and-file conservatives to activate and mobilize their networks.

“Only he can do that,” Vander Plaats said. “That responsibility falls on his shoulders … and I haven’t seen him makes moves to do that yet.”

Mehta reported from Greensburg and Reston from Lancaster, Pa.