Pledges of support from powerful Republicans last week may have edged Mitt Romney closer to the GOP presidential nomination, but the former Massachusetts governor still struggles to fire the imaginations of most in his party — even the coveted endorsements from former President George H.W. Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida seemed underwhelming in tone.
“[Mr. Romney‘s] challenge, assuming he gets the nomination, is to create more enthusiasm among the Republican base,” said Frank M. Newport of Gallup. “Obviously, he needs a Herman Cain injection of charisma.”
The good news for the Republican front-runner, Mr. Newport said, is that Republicans in general are more enthusiastic about this election — specifically about ousting the incumbent Democrat — than they were in 2008.
“The bad news is, when you mention [Romney‘s] name they go, ‘eh,’” he said.
In a poll last month, Gallup found that 35 percent of Republican voters are “enthusiastic” about Mr. Romney’s candidacy, while 19 percent said they would either vote for Mr. Obama or sit on their hands come Election Day.
While former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia fared worse in the survey, the same poll four years ago found that a larger pool of Republicans, 47 percent, were “enthusiastic” about the presidential bid of Sen. John McCain of Arizona. In that 2008 poll, a smaller slice, 14 percent, planned to support Mr. Obama or not vote at all.
A Washington Post/ABC News poll released last week told a similar story: Mr. Romney’s favorability rating is weak and relatively few Republicans and conservatives see Mr. Romney as “strongly” favorable.
“People who are true believers on either end like people who are their kindred spirits, and Romney is not perceived as being a true conservative by a lot of conservative types in the Republican Party,” Mr. Newport said.
Mr. Romney, he said, struggles to connect with voters on a more personal level.
“I think sometimes people understate, in a general sense, the personality factor in politics. You learn that with movie stars and in television. Some people come through the screen and grab you, and others don’t — and that’s a factor.”
Despite the troubling signs, Mr. Romney has garnered 568 delegates — more than his GOP rivals combined — in the race toward the 1,144 needed to sew up the party’s nomination before the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., in late August.
He has a chance to build on that lead Tuesday, when voters head to the polls in the District of Columbia and Maryland, as well as in the day’s biggest prize, Wisconsin, where Mr. Romney campaigned over the weekend with Mr. Ryan.
The party’s restrained embrace of Mr. Romney was evident in some of the language used in the recent endorsements, which were big on defeating Mr. Obama but short on over-the-top enthusiasm for the ex-governor.
“I am going to endorse Mitt Romney, and the reason why is not only because he’s going to be the Republican nominee, but he offers, at this point, such a stark contrast to the president’s record,” Mr. Rubio told Fox News. He warned that the GOP can’t afford to have the nomination contest spill over into a floor fight at the convention.
“I think that’s a recipe to deliver four more years to Barack Obama, and our country — forget about the Republican Party — our country cannot afford that. So we have to come together behind who I think has earned the nomination, and that’s Mitt Romney.”
Mr. Ryan delivered a similar message two days later. “I think we’re entering a phase where it could become counterproductive if this drags on much longer,” he said. “And so that’s why I think we need to coalesce as conservatives around Mitt Romney and focus on the big task at hand, which is defeating Barack Obama in the fall.”
On Sunday, another high-profile Wisconsin lawmaker, freshman Sen. Ron Johnson, threw his support behind the Romney campaign.
“It’s time to end this,” Mr. Johnson said on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” admonishing his fellow Wisconsin Republicans to “show that this is the time to bring this [primary] process to an end.”
Mr. Santorum, though, showed no signs of calling it quits anytime soon. He told an audience at the Faith & Freedom Coalition rally on Saturday in Waukesha, Wis., that the pro-Romney forces are “telling you to give up your principles in order to win,” while arguing that Mr. Romney will turn off the tea party and conservative voters who helped propel Republicans into control of the House in 2010.
In an appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” he said the endorsements are a “mistake,” and on “Fox News Sunday,” said Mr. Romney is the latest example of the “same old, tired establishment person that’s going to be shoved down our throat.”