SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Mitt Romney displayed a newfound ability to connect with fellow Republicans at the Republican National Committee three-day gathering here, although his campaign team still managed to find a way to annoy a few prominent party insiders.
After the former Massachusetts governor’s well-received luncheon address Friday to about 40 state party chairmen and another 40 elected national committee members, the words “connect” and “finally” fell from the lips of many relieved party officials.
While one Southern Republican later complained that the presumptive GOP nominee had failed to mention social-issue words such as “family” or “life” even once during his speech, Mr. Romney’s remarks focused relentlessly on issues such as jobs, economic growth, boosting U.S. exports, producing more oil domestically and taming the national debt — all issues that even many social conservatives have concluded should be the prime focus in the campaign against President Obama.
But a misstep by Romney aides at the gathering still had some party officials shaking their heads. The aides told the Iowa state GOP chairman and the two other elected RNC members from Iowa that they had to leave a private Romney reception Friday because they had refused to sign a pledge to vote for Mr. Romney at the August nominating convention in Tampa, Fla.
Despite having been invited to the reception, Iowa RNC member and evangelical activist Steve Scheffler, Iowa GOP Chairman A.J. Spiker and National Committeewoman Kim Lehman, were told by a Romney staffer they would have to sign a pledge if they wanted to remain in the room for a picture with the candidate.
“We told the Romney aide we’d support the nominee wholeheartedly in the fall campaign, but we would not sign a pledge to vote for him or anyone else at the convention,” Mr. Scheffler said, saying the “rudeness” displayed by the candidate’s staff was pointless and unnecessary.
Mrs. Lehman said the three had decided to get their pictures taken so that Mr. Romney could use them as a sign of Iowa delegation support. “But we felt we didn’t need to sign a pledge, and so were told to leave the reception,” she said.
Romney nomination rival Newt Gingrich, who had declined RNC Chairman Reince Priebus’ invitation to address the Scottsdale meeting, later told The Washington Times he saw nothing wrong with Mr. Romney’s tactics, and that it reflected the fact that the race is still not over.
“It’s just proof Romney is trying to clinch the nomination that the media has already awarded him,” the former House speaker said. “If his nomination were inevitable, it wouldn’t require this dealmaking — and if you look at Colorado, Minnesota and Iowa, you can see why the Romney people are scrambling for every vote.”
Michigan RNC member Saul Anuzis defended the invitation-only event. “The Romney campaign organized the private photo op as a ‘thank you’ for all of those RNC members who were supporting him,” he said. “This was not an RNC-sponsored or -sanctioned event.”
Mr. Anuzis said the idea behind asking members to sign the pledge form was to give party officials a clearer idea of Mr. Romney’s actual delegate total. With five states set to vote Tuesday, Mr. Romney has won fewer than 700 of the 1,144 GOP convention delegates officially needed for nomination.
That’s still far ahead of chief rivals Rick Santorum (who has suspended his campaign), Mr. Gingrich and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, but Romney aides say their battlefield scouts have been reporting that loyalists for Mr. Paul and other rivals are posing as Romney delegates in state conventions that actually determine which individuals go to the national convention as delegates.
The Romney camp’s fear is that even if he reaches Tampa with the requisite delegates to win, he could fail to carry the first round of voting, perhaps opening the convention to delegate horse-trading, vote-switching and conceivably a wide open nomination race.