Growing numbers of Republican conservatives now see Mitt Romney as most likely to win their party’s presidential nomination -- and that is forcing them to make a choice.
They can resist the former Massachusetts governor’s primary candidacy at all costs. Or they can back him and use that leverage to pressure him to hew to the party’s agenda, including opposition to abortion rights, gay marriage, a hard line on illegal immigration and skepticism toward global warming.
“We’re at the 11th hour of this process, and there are really one of two ways to go,” said Al Cardenas, chairman of the anti-tax, anti-government-spending American Conservative Union in Alexandria, Virginia, and former head of Florida’s Republican Party.
The options being debated, he said, are, “either to have a movement conversation with Mitt Romney and reach a level of comfort, and move forward with the concept of the inevitable nomination of Mitt Romney,” or “to finally put all of its weight behind one other candidate.”
The debate is reaching its crescendo with the first voting in Iowa set to begin in less than eight weeks, a shrinking window that has some worried that time will run out on their ability to influence the nominating process.
Some conservative activists have already picked sides. A group of Republican strategists, bloggers and commentators this week launched a web-based anti-Romney organization called nottmittromney.com.
The website is dedicated to halting Romney’s progress by highlighting claims that he’s switched positions on such issues as abortion and gun rights, illegal immigration and the causes of climate change.
On abortion, Romney critics often cite his pledge in the 2002 Massachusetts governor’s race: “I will preserve and protect a woman’s right to choose and am devoted and dedicated to honoring my word in that regard.”
Since that race, Romney has said his position evolved. At a June 13 CNN debate, he attempted to put the matter to rest. “I am firmly pro-life,” he said, “I believe in the sanctity of life from the very beginning to the very end.”
Climate Change Shift
On climate change, Romney’s language has shifted more recently. In his 2010 book “No Apologies,” Romney wrote, “I believe that climate change is occurring,” and that “human activity is a contributing factor. I am uncertain how much of the warming, however, is attributable to man and how much is attributable to factors out of our control.”
At an event in Pittsburgh on Oct. 27, Romney said, “My view is that we don’t know what’s causing climate change on this planet.”
In an Internet statement describing their mission, the all-volunteer, anti-Romney group, asked: “How do you support a candidate when you literally don’t know what he really thinks about anything?”
Ali A. Akbar, a co-founder of the group who is unaffiliated with any candidate, said he and others are convinced Romney is “on a trajectory to become the nominee, because we’ve never all come together in order to block him.”
Akbar said the group, which has produced an anti-Romney Web video entitled “Nominee,” will organize a telephone-based campaign against him in Iowa, South Carolina and Florida, sites of early nominating contests.
Connie Mackey, president of the Washington-based Family Research Council Action Political Action Committee, an anti-abortion-rights group, said a Romney bandwagon won’t deter her from withholding support.
“Maybe there is inevitability that he will be the candidate just because of his stick-to-it-iveness over the last four years, but I don’t see any additional willingness to sign on,” Mackey said. “I am amazed at how locked in against Mitt Romney people are, mostly because they don’t believe for one minute that he has changed his position on life and marriage.”
Mackey said Romney “has said all the right things” about opposing abortion and not recognizing same-sex marriage, “but there’s a standoffishness -- there’s something about him that they just don’t buy it.”
A nationwide Gallup poll released Nov. 9 found that with 45 percent of Republicans believe Romney will be the party’s presidential nominee, with 13 percent naming Herman Cain and 9 percent predicting Texas Governor Rick Perry.
Romney has been leading or second in polls of the Republican presidential race conducted this year, yet his backing has never risen beyond 25 percent to 30 percent. He gets low marks from those identifying themselves as conservative or aligned with the Tea Party.
In an ABC News/Washington Post poll conducted Oct. 31-Nov. 3, Romney drew support from 24 percent of those who leaned Republican. Among those who called themselves “very conservative,” Romney’s backing stood at 15 percent.
Romney’s campaign strategists argue there is time for him to build support. “All things come in due time -- let’s just have patience on that,” said Neil Newhouse, Romney’s polling expert, during a Nov. 2 breakfast with reporters in Washington.
Senator Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican backing Romney, said he’s making the argument to fellow fiscal and social conservatives that supporting Romney is the politically astute move for a party focused on defeating President Barack Obama next year.
“There’s a real deep-felt belief that a second Obama administration would not be good for the country, and the most important thing here is to do whatever is required politically to be sure that we don’t continue down this path,” Blunt said. “There’s nothing wrong with being pragmatic.”
Senator John Thune, a South Dakota Republican who hasn’t endorsed a presidential candidate, said Romney “over time is probably growing in terms of acceptance among conservatives.”
Some activists say Romney’s evolving policy positions on key issues don’t bother them, so long as he ends up in their corner.
“What you’ve seen up until this point is the ‘anyone-but-Romney’ campaign,” said Brent Bozell, founder of the Media Research Center, an Alexandria, Virginia-based nonprofit organization that works to combat what it sees as liberal media bias. “I have no problem with somebody changing positions,” Bozell said, “when they go the right way.”