With Mitt in the lead, anti-Romney Republicans weigh their options

What do the anti-Romney Republicans do now?

Mitt Romney is the odds-on favorite to become the GOP presidential nominee following his 14-point victory in the Florida primary Tuesday and is heading into the Nevada caucuses with a big lead. Those conservatives who have long opposed his candidacy are at a loss.

Some continue to hold out hope that, somehow, Romney can be stopped. Others seem to grudgingly accept that he will become the nominee, but are disinclined to do anything more than the bare minimum to help him win the general election. The appetite for a third-party candidacy is small, setting aside the comparatively small group of libertarians who would back a Ron Paul run.

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In the absence of a clear way forward, conservatives are confused and dismayed.

“I was disappointed that the grassroots movement even in our own state was just not able to overcome the money that can be poured into a campaign,” said Patricia Sullivan, a prominent Tea Party activist in Florida who endorsed Gingrich. “We had the passion, but not the finances to beat that kind of establishment machine.”

Those who continue to believe that Romney can be stopped are focused — as is the campaign of Newt Gingrich — on the possibility of a long delegate fight. They have largely given up hope of anyone winning a knockout victory over Romney, hoping instead that some other candidate can prevent the former Massachusetts governor from wrapping the race up before the Republican National Convention, which is set for Tampa, Fla., in late August.

“We have never gone through a delegate fight like this,” said Bob Vander Plaats, an influential conservative and the head of the Iowa-based Family Leader organization. “You need around 600 delegates to win, and I think that will be very difficult for Gov. Romney.” 

Vander Plaats added that the reason Gingrich has been emphasizing that there are 46 states to go in the contest is because “he can do the math”.

Similar themes are sounded by prominent conservatives in the media. Erick Erickson of Red State wrote Thursday that the fact that many states award their delegates proportionally, rather than on a winner-take-all basis, could play to Gingrich’s advantage.

“If Gingrich is serious about staying in till the convention, he could deny Romney a first ballot win and spare the base from the man they don’t like, even if Newt himself cannot get the nomination. He is more of a long shot today than he was a day before Florida, but he can still be the nominee,” Erickson wrote.

Other figures in the media firmament are not so sure. Rush Limbaugh, for instance, has been harshly critical of Romney for years but is now urging his listeners to concentrate on the imperative, as he sees it, of defeating President Obama.


“Everybody thinks, ‘Oh, my God, what do we do now?’ All the non-Mitts, all the people think Romney's not the guy. He's not conservative enough. He's not a good enough politician,” he said on his show Wednesday. “All the criticism, ‘What do we do? Oh, no, Rush! What do we do?’ We do what we should have been doing all along and focus on Obama.”

To be sure, opposition to Obama continues to unite an otherwise increasingly divided community of Republican supporters. Few of the sources with whom The Hill spoke predicted that conservatives would stay home in big numbers come November’s election, so deep is the antipathy toward the president. But many question whether conservative support of Romney, if he is the nominee, will be enthusiastic or merely perfunctory.

Bob Vander Plaats said that conservatives would turn out to “vote against Obama,” but noted that this was “quite another thing from making the phone calls and mobilizing the kind of network that brings victory.”

Grassroots activists “are never going to get onboard” with Romney, Steve Deace, an influential conservative talk show host in Iowa, told The Hill.

Deace, who endorsed Gingrich in the run-up to his state’s caucuses, still held out hope that there might be a conservative rallying-around Gingrich — if for no reason other than to poke a collective finger in the eye of the hated establishment.

Deace argued that conservatives who previously “might have looked at some things” in Gingrich’s background — an allusion to doubts about his colorful personal life — may now think “if I can use Newt Gingrich to hit back at the party establishment, that’s good enough for me.”

But, even if that did happen, would the insurgents really have the power to swing the race? Some argue that their power has been exaggerated of late — especially regarding the presidential race. 

Boston University history professor Bruce Schulman, who has written extensively on the Republican Party, told The Hill that “much more so than the Democrats, the party establishment has long controlled the presidential nominating process in the Republican Party. Since World War Two, only one insurgent candidate, Barry Goldwater in 1964, has won the nomination.”

Irrespective of that history, Sullivan, the Florida Tea Party activist, said she remained hopeful that Romney could still be stopped. If that proved wrong, she warned darkly, he would lose to Obama in November. “And that could be the demise of the Republican Party,” she added.