ST. LOUIS — Mitt Romney was not his first choice for president, but conservative political activist Scott Magill has come to accept that Romney is now his only choice. So Magill is looking for reasons to get jazzed about the candidate he once dismissed.
His list so far: Romney is a Republican who would sign into law legislation passed by a GOP-led House. Romney has started to hit the right talking points. If elected, Romney would have to listen to the conservative base — or risk its wrath at re-election time.
Also, and perhaps most important, Romney is not Barack Obama.
But Magill, a Newt Gingrich supporter who attended a recent National Rifle Association convention here, can’t help but let his disappointment show.
“Do I think he’s truly a conservative — by that I mean someone who conserves the Constitution? No,” said Magill, who mingled with some GOP stalwarts among acres of high-powered rifles, hunting knives and camouflage gear. “Is he a little Etch-a-Sketchy? Yeah. But we’ve got to tie that Etch a Sketch down. If we can do that, then there’s hope for us.”
Across the country, some Republicans are coming to terms with the likelihood that the man they never really liked will probably be their party’s presidential nominee. For many, it has been a hard pill to swallow at a time when the conservative base has logged an impressive list of victories and holds enormous sway over the party’s leaders.
In dozens of interviews with conservative leaders and activists, many said Rick Santorum’s decision to drop out of the race last week prompted some soul-searching about Romney, whom they have resolved to consider with fresh eyes and a newly opened mind.
And with the primary contest largely behind him, Romney appears to be trying to secure their support. On Thursday, his campaign announced that he will be delivering the commencement address next month at Liberty University, an evangelical Christian college. His advisers consider it a prime opportunity to consolidate conservatives behind him.
The conservative base appears to be warming to Romney, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted after Santorum’s exit, which found that about 80 percent of conservative Republicans hold favorable views of Romney — a record percentage for the candidate.
But only 29 percent of conservative Republicans said they held a “very favorable” view of him. And in a CNN poll released Monday, more than six in 10 respondents who said they would vote for him in November said they would do so out of opposition to President Obama rather than support for Romney.
All of which suggests that Republicans are ready to support Romney. But they don’t love him.
Whether there’s anything Romney can do to change that — and whether it even matters in an election in which independent voters will rule — is an open question.
Peter Flaherty, a senior Romney adviser who works with conservative groups, said the candidate has long-standing ties to conservative organizations and their leaders. He said the movement has been coalescing quickly around Romney since Santorum left the race last week and that activists’ excitement will grown naturally as the campaign progresses.
“We obviously want a very excited base. Our feeling is that the base is very excited,” he said. “And the constituencies who began this race with other campaigns are all motivated by the need to replace this president. We will continue to work with the other campaigns and supporters of other campaigns in the primary to amplify the enthusiasm. We won’t take anyone for granted.”
Other strategists say the groundwork has been laid for their passion for Romney to grow — by the Democratic Party and Obama.
“They will come around because they believe that four more years of Barack Obama will be an unmitigated disaster for the country that will drive us to the brink of bankruptcy,” Republican pollster Whit Ayres said. “That, more than anything else, will cause the Republican Party to unite around Mitt Romney.”
The daily churn of the news cycle has produced, just in the past week, the kind of spontaneous moment that could rally the base: A Democratic operative remarked on television that Romney’s wife, Ann, had “never worked a day in her life” because she was a stay-at-home mother. Republicans and Democrats alike condemned the comments, but it offered some red meat to the GOP base.
“Their little attack on Ann Romney seems to be getting the tea parties a little more excited,” said Marla Gillaspie, a Colorado tea party organizer who said that Romney was not her first choice but that she would be “active for Romney. We cannot survive four more years of Obama.”
But it remains to be seen whether the grass-roots energy that elected a record number of Republicans in 2010 and helped fuel Santorum’s insurgent campaign will translate to Romney.
Jim Bob Duggar, star of TLC’s “19 Kids and Counting” and one of Santorum’s most high-profile supporters, issued a statement after Santorum’s exit urging fellow conservatives to back the party’s eventual nominee.
But in an interview, Duggar — a Christian conservative and former Arkansas state legislator — said he and his family won’t be boarding their bus to campaign for Romney, as they did for Santorum, anytime soon.
“Since Rick suspended his race, we’ve focused our time and energy into state legislative races,” he said. “I really believe that if we can’t win it from the top down, then we’re going to win it from the bottom up.”
Romney also faces the continuing challenges of trying to convert fellow candidate Ron Paul’s wildly enthusiastic brigade into energy for his own effort. Paul’s support, though limited, does not seem to be fading as Romney’s strengthens.
Just after Santorum dropped out, 900 Republicans attended a caucus in St. Charles, Mo., a do-over of a meeting disrupted by a dispute about rules in March. Paul swept the night, winning all of the delegates elected to attend the Missouri state convention, where national delegates will be chosen.
“They expect the Ron Paul people to just jump on their bandwagon, after they’ve done everything possible to attack them, to belittle them, to alienate them? It’s the height of arrogance,” said Brent Stafford, a member of his county’s Republican committee and a Paul supporter from St. Charles.
Santorum’s withdrawal from the field has opened the door for many groups that had been uncomfortable with his candidacy to embrace Romney, including the National Right to Life; the Susan B. Anthony List; National Organization for Marriage, which opposes same-sex marriage.
Foster Friess, a millionaire businessman who nearly single-handedly funded a Santorum super PAC, also threw his support behind Romney this week.
Flaherty said the new nods are the result of “existing relationships that are being built upon.”
“We’re very encouraged by the passion that we’ve been met with in the beginning,” he said. “We think it’s a very good sign of things to come.”
But at the NRA convention, attendees offered the harshest criticism they could of a candidate they plan to support.
They wanted fiery; they got analytical and measured. They wanted ideological purity; they got a recovering moderate. They wanted a Christian warrior; they got a Mormon who prefers to keep the religious talk to a minimum.
“I don’t see enough heart. I see a lot of scripted,” said Ted Church, 35, an unemployed event coordinator from Collinsville, Ill.
“He’s got to act like he’s got fire in his gut,” said John Kaufman, 68, a retired postal worker from Harristown, Ill.
“He reminds me of a Kennedy,” said Judy Rasey, 61, from Michigan. It was not a compliment.
For Magill, a military veteran, Romney’s rise has been particularly frustrating in light of what Magill gave up in the name of conservative principles. A practicing obstetrician until a year and a half ago, he dropped his private practice to become a full-time political activist.
He blames a convoluted primary process — and something approaching a conspiracy by the Republican establishment — for leaving him with Romney as his best option.
His concerns about the candidate are unlikely to fade in coming months, he said. But that won’t stop him from giving money to the Republican candidate, even volunteering on his behalf.
“I’m not sure that Romney can win,” he said. “But I think that we can push him over.”