- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 19, 2012

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney appeared to be making progress at a gathering of key party officials here, winning public expressions of support from some formerly skeptical state party chairmen and elected members of the Republican National Committee.

Eager to unify and energize the party for the coming campaign against President Obama, some RNC leaders had wanted to see the national committee as a whole endorse the former Massachusetts governor at the meeting here. The prevailing view, however, was that individual endorsements were less likely to reinforce the impression held by some supporters of Romney rivals that the “establishment” had already coalesced around him. Former Sen. Rick Santorum, Mr. Romney’s chief rival, suspended his campaign last month, but former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Rep. Ron Paul are still formally in the race.

A top RNC official contended Thursday that enthusiasm for Mr. Romney, who has struggled at times to connect with the party’s conservative base, is on the rise.

“Romney is getting conservatives on this committee to rally behind him,” said Illinois RNC member Demetra DeMonte, the elected secretary of the RNC and a founding member of the RNC’s Conservative Caucus. Ms. DeMonte had originally favored Mr. Santorum, who often outpaced Mr. Romney in primaries and caucuses among evangelical voters and tea party activists.

“I was leaning toward Rick Santorum but am going to tell Mitt today I’m pledging my support to him,” said Tennessee RNC member Peggy Lambert.

Iowa RNC Kim Lehman, who publicly endorsed Mr. Santorum, has scheduled a meeting with Mr. Romney later on Thursday and is considering switching her support to him. Another Tennessee RNC member, John Ryder, has indicated he has moved to Mr. Romney’s column.

Another Conservative Caucus founder, Oregon RNC member Solomon Yue, told a Thursday morning meeting of the caucus in Scottsdale that only Mr. Romney has the experience and fiscal record to redirect the United States away from what he claims is President Obama’s path to “bankrupting, Greek-style national debt.”

Mr. Romney had arranged to stay overnight to deliver an address to a Friday luncheon that 40 of the 55 GOP chairmen from 50 states and five U.S. territories are expected to attend in this well-heeled suburb of Phoenix. Some 40 more national committeemen and women, elected by their states’ central committee, have registered for the meeting here.

For the assembled state GOP officials, it will be their last meeting before the Republican presidential nominating convention in Tampa in August. It is still not clear if Mr. Romney will technically have all the delegates needed by then to formally claim the prize before the convention opens.

There was some private headshaking over the man scheduled to share the luncheon spotlight with the former Massachusetts governor on Friday: Arizona Sen. John McCain, the party’s losing nominee against Mr. Obama four years ago.

Mr. Gingrich told The Washington Times that the joint McCain-Romney appearance was a fine idea. “If you go to Arizona, you are delighted to have the state’s senior senator and most famous Republican by your side,” the former House speaker said.

The presence of Mr. McCain was more or less unavoidable, given his stature in the state party, even though his co-starring with Mr. Romney highlights parallels some Republican think would best be downplayed. LIke Mr. Romney, Mr. McCain could never claim to have sewed up the core conservative vote in his own party.

“Trying to lock up your bona fides with the conservative wing of the GOP isn’t helped by embracing McCain — even if you are in his state,” said former Virginia GOP Chairman Jeffrey M. Frederick. “Not sure, either, how it helps him with independents. If he’s trying to get the broader party to embrace him as the nominee, I don’t think this helps.”

“They don’t get it,” added David Lane, a conservative political California organizer of evangelical ministers and congregations, said of the party leaders who brought Mr. Romney and Mr. McCain to the same stage at the same time.

Mr. Romney handily won the Feb. 28 GOP primary election in Arizona.

Enthusiasm among some nationally recognized conservative names as well as among self-described conservative voters in general has been rising for Mr. Romney. But he is far from home free on that score.

Mr. Romney had the support of 39 percent of conservatives and 44 percent of moderates and liberals sampled in the latest Gallup poll.

The Democratic polling form PPP reported that self-identified tea party voters like Mr. Romney, who has finally won the public support of the two top GOP leaders in Congress and some major support from former Santorum backers in recent days.

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