Romney Gains Backers as Party Leaders Push to End Race

Republican leaders across the party’s ideological spectrum are lining up behind front-runner Mitt Romney in an escalating effort to conclude the presidential primary battle and close ranks before the general election.

Even as Rick Santorum vowed from the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court (1000L) to continue his challenge to Romney, calls for an end to the contest echoed yesterday across Capitol Hill. Some Republicans fear a prolonged fight could damage their party’s prospects in November.

“Every day we continue to have a protracted primary is one less day you can get prepared for the big race in November,” Senator Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican who hasn’t endorsed a candidate, said in an interview.

A series of elected officials, business leaders and party activists have raised similar concerns in recent days, urging Republicans to unite around Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, to avoid further damaging the standing of their nominee against President Barack Obama in the November election.

“With all due respect to my fellow conservative leaders determined to oppose Governor Romney, that is not a worthy endeavor,” Al Cardenas, chairman of the American Conservative Union, wrote in an opinion article for the Daily Caller website yesterday. “It’s time to unite behind a worthy presidential candidate, build our organization and raise the resources necessary to defeat the liberal electoral machine.”

‘Grueling Primary’

The American Conservative Union, founded almost 50 years ago by magazine editor and syndicated columnist William F. Buckley Jr., sponsors the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington that draws an array of Republican activists.

Joining Cardenas in backing Romney were Senator Mike Lee of Utah, a favorite of anti-tax Tea Party activists; Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the third-ranking House Republican; and Carly Fiorina, former chief executive officer of Hewlett-Packard Co. (HPQ)

“After a long and grueling primary, it is clear that Mitt Romney is the best candidate to face President Obama,” McCarthy said in a statement that called on Republicans to “unite and work together” to win the White House.

Romney is well within reach of securing his party’s nomination, leading his rivals in delegates, fundraising and endorsements.

Betting on Romney

After winning a 12-point victory in the March 20 Illinois primary, Romney has 568 delegates of the 1,144 needed to secure the nomination, according to an Associated Press tally. Santorum trails with 273, followed by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich with 135 and Representative Ron Paul of Texas with 50.

“If I was asked to put $100 down today, I’d be putting it on Romney,” Senator Dean Heller, a Nevada Republican who doesn’t plan to endorse a candidate, said in an interview.

Though he lags in delegates, Santorum has won 11 of the 32 primary contests, largely on the strength of his support among lower-income and born-again Christian voters. His most recent win came in Louisiana’s March 24 primary, in which he defeated Romney by 22 percentage points.

That victory fueled Santorum’s effort to continue his campaign. Although most of April’s primaries are in regions favorable to Romney, Santorum is seeking a breakthrough in Wisconsin. The state’s Republican electorate is more rural and working-class than in most of the Midwest, and he plans to campaign there during much of the next week as he seeks a win in the April 3 contest.

Santorum Push

“Of course, Governor Romney’s supporters are going to want everybody out of the way,” Santorum said yesterday, dismissing the calls for him to withdraw from the race.

Romney, 65, is the heavy favorite to win the other two April 3 primaries, in Maryland and Washington, D.C. The next round of ballots will be cast on April 24 in Rhode Island (BARI), Connecticut, New York and Delaware -- where Romney is favored -- and in Pennsylvania, which Santorum, 53, represented in the House and Senate.

Santorum is increasingly hitting Romney on what he and some other Republicans argue is the front-runner’s main political vulnerability: his support as governor of Massachusetts of a state law similar to the health-care measure Obama pushed through Congress.

‘Worst Candidate’

Two years after distaste for the federal overhaul that helped fuel the Tea Party surge that swept Republicans to a U.S. House majority, Santorum contends that, with Romney as the party’s nominee, no similar burst of energy will help to topple Obama.

Santorum appeared outside the Supreme Court yesterday to press that case after the justices heard the first day of arguments on whether to overturn the health-care law. He said Romney is “the worst person” to try to debate the topic against Obama.

“He’s the worst candidate to go against Barack Obama on the most important issue of the day,” Santorum said, echoing comments he frequently makes on the campaign trail.

Gingrich, 68, and Paul, 76, have also vowed to remain in the race. In an interview with CNN yesterday, Gingrich repeated his description of Romney as “the weakest front-runner in modern times.”

Internal Strife

Republican lawmakers said the internal strife among Republican candidates could hurt the eventual nominee.

“This election is either going to be about Obama, or it’s going to be about our nominee,” Senator Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican who hasn’t backed any of the candidates, said yesterday in an interview. “The key is to make it about Obama, who must be forced to defend his record, as opposed to pointing fingers at the nominee. The sooner we get to that point, the better off we’ll be.”

Senator Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican, said yesterday in an interview that “the conclusion that most people are making” is that Romney will be the nominee.

The fresh round of attacks came as Romney escalates their efforts to rally Republicans around his candidacy.

During a campaign appearance in California yesterday, Romney touted his recent endorsements, including last week from former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, the son and brother of former presidents.

Sole Appearance

The event at a medical device company in San Diego was the sole public appearance planned for Romney during a four-day visit to the state. Most of his time will be spent at fundraisers.

During a March 22 fundraising trip to Washington, D.C., Romney spent several hours making private appeals to Republican lawmakers.

His efforts earned praise -- though not quite a full endorsement -- from Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina (BKSC), a leader of the Tea Party movement.

“What we got from him is a sense of urgency that our country’s in trouble and we need some real leadership,” DeMint told reporters.

Some Romney supporters have gone even further, depicting the Republican race as essentially over.

“Everybody in the Republican Party of significance understands this is over except for Rick Santorum,” said former New Hampshire Governor John Sununu.

Santorum shot back, decrying what he termed an “elitist pattern” by Romney’s campaign.

“Half the country hasn’t even voted yet,” Santorum said in a statement. “Quite frankly, it’s disturbing to hear that the Romney camp feels those people who support someone else are insignificant.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Lisa Lerer in Washington at llerer@bloomberg.net; Kathleen Hunter in Washington at khunter9@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeanne Cummings at jcummings21@bloomberg.net

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