Mitt Romney is drawing influential Republican backers behind his presidential bid, as rival Newt Gingrich -- his long-shot campaign downsized and ambitions curbed -- retrenches for a months-long fight to deny the front- runner the party’s nomination.
U.S. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a 40-year-old Tea Party favorite often mentioned as a vice-presidential prospect, threw his support behind Romney, expressing certainty that the former Massachusetts governor would be the nominee and saying that he feared “disaster” if Gingrich or Rick Santorum prolonged the primary race.
“We have got to come together behind who I think has earned this nomination, and that’s Mitt Romney,” Rubio said in an interview on Fox News yesterday.
Rubio’s endorsement came a day before Romney -- far ahead of his rivals in delegates, campaign cash and votes amassed during the primary season -- is to receive the official endorsement of 87-year-old former President George H.W. Bush.
It followed a vow from Gingrich yesterday to remain in the race until Romney has enough delegates to clinch the nomination -- even if it means forcing a contentious struggle at the Republican National Convention in late August.
Speaking at Georgetown University in Washington, Gingrich blamed his faltering presidential bid on a “cynical media” that thinks big ideas are “silly.”
“I haven’t done a very good job as a candidate because it is so difficult to communicate big solutions in this country,” he said.
The former House Speaker’s spokesman said March 27 that Gingrich had sacked his campaign manager, slashed his staff by one-third and scaled back travel plans in a bid to conserve resources while pursuing an unconventional strategy to obstruct Romney’s path to the nomination.
“We’re staying in; that’s exactly why we’re downsizing,” Gingrich said yesterday on WTOP, a Washington radio station. “We’re doing the appropriate things to be able to campaign.”
He and Santorum have each given up on surpassing Romney in delegates, instead seeking to prevent him from reaching the 1,144 delegates needed for the nomination. If successful, they could force a battle at the party’s convention Aug. 27-30 in Tampa, Florida -- a scenario some Republicans fear could hurt their chances in the general election barely more than two months later.
‘Recipe for Disaster’
“There is no way that anyone can convince me that having a floor fight at the convention in Tampa in August is a recipe for victory in November,” Rubio said yesterday. “It’s a recipe for disaster.”
Gingrich sees a convention battle as an opportunity.
If Romney falls short of the required delegates on the first ballot at the convention, said Gingrich’s spokesman, R.C. Hammond, “it’s a whole new ballgame.” The result would be a debate among delegates about who is the best candidate to topple President Barack Obama that could culminate in a substantial shift in loyalties to Gingrich, Santorum, Representative Ron Paul of Texas -- or possibly a late entrant to the race.
“You start the primary season all over again, where it’s essentially a debate among the delegates,” Hammond said. “There’s a chance for Gingrich to be the nominee.”
Until then, Gingrich will keep a lighter campaign schedule that focuses mostly on states in the South, where he has performed better during the primary season, as well as California (BEESCA), which holds its primary on June 5. Much of his time will be spent in meetings and phone calls to win over delegates.
“He’ll tap into his previous skills as a whip,” Hammond said, using the term for the No. 3 House leader, whose job is to count votes and persuade lawmakers to back the party agenda. As minority whip, Gingrich helped orchestrate the Republican takeover of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1994 and then became the chamber’s speaker in 1995.
Romney leads in the delegate hunt with 568, according to the latest Associated Press projections, while Santorum has 273, Gingrich 135 and Paul 50.
Rubio denied yesterday, as he has previously, having any interest in being his party’s vice presidential nominee. “That’s not what I want to be, that’s not what I intend to be, and that’s not going to happen,” he said.
Rubio and Bush are the latest in a series of elected officials, business leaders and party activists -- including one of Bush’s sons, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush -- to rally behind Romney over the past week. Some of them have called for a swift end to a primary that they say threatens to drag on for months, potentially damaging the party’s brand and its eventual standard bearer.
No End in Sight
Gingrich and Santorum have steadfastly resisted those calls and worked to tarnish Romney’s air of inevitability and stoke doubts about his conservative credentials, while vowing to continue with increasingly implausible efforts to stop him from winning the nomination.
“I think it is time for all the Republican candidates to coalesce behind me,” Santorum said in Delavan Lake, Wisconsin (BEESWI), where he’s campaigning for support in the April 3 primary. “Let’s just have a conservative nominee to take on Barack Obama. Until that time happens, I’m not going to call on anyone to get out,” he added, according to the AP.
Romney is favored to win the other two April 3 primaries, in Maryland and Washington, D.C. Santorum isn’t on the Washington ballot. The next contests will be on April 24 in Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York and Delaware -- states friendly to Romney -- and in Pennsylvania, which Santorum represented in the House and Senate.
A poll released yesterday underscored Santorum’s challenge, showing his support eroding in Pennsylvania (BEESPA), where a loss would increase pressure on him to withdraw.
In the survey conducted March 20-25 by Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Santorum led Romney among registered Republicans in the state, 30 percent to 28 percent. That’s a 27-point drop in the edge he enjoyed over Romney in February. The poll’s margin of error was plus-or-minus 4.2 points.
Romney, in Texas for a fundraiser and to publicly claim Bush’s support, telephoned Wisconsin voters for a virtual town hall session yesterday in which he touted his credentials to defeat Obama.
“I’m a conservative businessman,” he said, contrasting himself with Santorum and Gingrich. “I believe that our nation will be better-served by people going to Washington who are not life-long politicians.”
Former first lady Barbara Bush has also backed Romney and recorded calls for voters voicing her support played before March 6 primaries in Ohio and Vermont.
Another of Bush’s sons, former President George W. Bush, has yet to endorse in the Republican race.
The elder Bush has made public comments praising Romney without extending a formal endorsement. He will provide it today at his office in Houston, according to Romney’s campaign.
To contact the reporters on this story: Julie Hirschfeld Davis in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org; Lisa Lerer in Washington at email@example.com
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