Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney
Republican party leaders are starting to rally around Mitt Romney, but it's not exactly a stampede of support for the expected GOP presidential nominee, reports The Associated Press.
With Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich out of the race, Romney is his party's pick to take on President Barack Obama this fall, barring a catastrophe. While Romney talks like the nominee, the former Massachusetts governor has work to do to round up enough convention delegates to make it official.
Romney has 856 delegates, according to The Associated Press count. That's 288 short of the 1,144 he needs to win the nomination. Romney could get about 100 delegates from Tuesday's primaries in North Carolina, Indiana and West Virginia, if he dominates the voting in all three states.
But unless he persuades a lot more Santorum and Gingrich delegates to switch allegiances, Romney might not clinch until the Texas primary May 29. On Sunday, Romney lost 11 delegates to Texas Rep. Ron Paul when Paul's supporters won control of the Maine GOP convention and elected Paul delegates to the party's national convention.
Romney is "the projected candidate," said Peggy Lambert, a member of the Republican National Committee from Tennessee who endorsed Romney last week. "Let's go ahead and get this thing over with. Let's get as many delegates as we can."
Santorum and Gingrich have said they will help Romney defeat Obama, but neither has released his delegates to vote for Romney at the national convention in August. Santorum has 257 delegates and Gingrich has 130. In interviews during the past week, many delegates said they were reluctant to back Romney without guidance from their former candidates.
Paul is the only other Republican still in the race, and he has 94 delegates.
Many committee members are getting behind Romney, though some are half-hearted about it. These party leaders — three from each state and U.S. territory — automatically attend the national convention and, in most states, can support any candidate they choose.
They will be asked to donate, volunteer and work for Republican candidates up and down the ticket, making their support for Romney an important barometer of enthusiasm and unity among GOP loyalists.
"I think the process has narrowed down and we've got a chance to hear all the candidates and all the debate," said Jonathan Barnett, an RNC member from Arkansas who serves in the state Legislature. "Really, he's pretty much the only one left standing. It's time to get on board."
Alabama GOP chairman Bill Armistead sounded more enthusiastic. He said he's recruiting volunteers to help Romney in Florida, where the race will be much closer than in Alabama.
"The No. 1 objective of the people I talk to is to defeat Barack Obama," Armistead said.
The RNC has 168 members. Some are required to support the candidate who wins the primary in their state. The AP has identified 120 who are free to support any candidate they choose, regardless of the primaries.
Romney has endorsements from 57 of them, according to the AP's latest survey, conducted in the past week after Gingrich's plans to leave the race became public. Paul has one endorsement, while 60 RNC members are holding off on endorsing anyone, even with the race essentially decided. (Two RNC spots won't be filled until June.)