Some 50 stalwarts of the political right privately met with Mitt Romney minutes after he dropped out of the Republican nominating race to discuss the former Massachusetts governor becoming the face of conservatism, as Ronald Reagan became en route to his 1980 election win.
Participants said the group was not organizing against the presidential bid of Sen. John McCain, the party"s presumptive nominee, but only seeking to revive core values such as lower taxes, limited government and free speech.
"The purpose of the meeting was for him to announce his willingness to fight shoulder to shoulder with true conservatives from here on out," said political strategist Paul Erickson, who worked for Mr. Romney"s campaign. "He did just that."
American Conservative Union Chairman David A. Keene presided over the meeting in the Empire Ballroom of the Omni Shoreham in Washington, where the 35th annual Conservative Political Action Conference was held. Besides Mr. Romney and his wife, Ann, and deputy campaign manager Peter G. Flaherty, attendees included former Christian Coalition Executive Director Ralph Reed, radio talk show host Laura Ingraham and former Reagan White House official Donald J. Devine.
"If someone had suggested a year ago and a half ago that we would be welcoming Mitt Romney as a potential leader of the conservative movement, no one would have believed it," Mr. Keene said to open the meeting. "But over the last year and a half, he has convinced us he is one of us and walks with us."
Jay Sekulow, a Romney volunteer and chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, told attendees that Mr. Romney is the "turnaround specialist" the conservative movement needs.
"The movement needs someone of Ronald Reagan's stature and Romney could fill that role," Mr. Sekulow told The Washington Times yesterday.
Hanging over the extraordinary meeting, held immediately after Mr. Romney bowed out of the Republican nomination race, was a mood that ranged from skepticism to cold hostility toward Mr. McCain.
"McCain's nomination creates an existential crisis for the Republican Party: Securing America at the price of open borders, higher taxes and the loss of free speech," said Mr. Erickson, who organized the Empire Room meeting. "It's a lot to ask."
"You could tell everybody at the table sitting with Romney was asking himself: 'Is he the one?' Some concluded yes and others could say only that it is too soon to tell," Mr. Erickson added.
The conservative movement has been without a leader since Mr. Reagan, and has faced competition from conservatism usually preceded by such adjectives as "big-government," "compassionate" and "neo."
"John McCain has nine months before the general election — a long gestation period — to show me he has become the conservative he claims to be," said election laws attorney Cleta Mitchell, who attended the private meeting with Mr. Romney.
Other conservative leaders in attendance included Indiana Republican National Committee member James Bopp Jr.; Freedom Alliance President Tom Kilganon; former Sen. Jim Talent of Missouri; Michigan Republican Party Chairman Saul Anuzis; Human Events editor-in-chief Tom Winter; conservative activist Bay Buchanan; Ann Corkery, a Catholic activist; and Rabbi Nate Segal, a Rush Limbaugh associate. Participating via telephone was Free Congress Foundation President Paul M. Weyrich.