Top Republicans, long privately skeptical about their presidential prospects, are coming around to a surprising new view — that Mitt Romney may well win the White House this November.
Margin-of-error polling, fundraising parity last month, conservative consolidation around Romney and a still-sluggish economy has senior GOP officials increasingly bullish about a nominee many winced over during a difficult primary process.
Interviews with about two dozen Republican elected officials, aides, strategists and lobbyists reveal a newfound optimism that with a competent, on-message campaign, Romney will be at least competitive with a weakened incumbent. That’s a dramatic shift from the fatalistic view many party stalwarts shared mere weeks ago.
“Romney is a lot better off than I expected him to be this quickly,” said former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who cast a primary vote for Newt Gingrich. “A lot of people were concerned that Romney, with his being the least conservative of all the Republican candidates, was going to have to work hard to unite the party — that he would have a serious sales job on his hands. But President Obama has apparently taken care of that for him.”
Barbour said that after a gaffe-filled primary, he expected a bruised Romney “to start down but hopefully not by double digits.
“But that he’s this close has surprised and encouraged me — and I think it has encouraged Republicans around the country.”
(Also on POLITICO: Obama struggles in primaries)
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said: “I wouldn’t have thought it would be this close, basically a tie.”
A slew of polls recently released by The New York Times/CBS, Washington Post/ABC, Wall Street Journal/NBC and Gallup show a tight race, with neither candidate up by more than 5 points. But what gives Republicans confidence is the continued concern expressed in the surveys about Obama’s stewardship of the economy and a sense that the country is headed in the wrong direction.
And, as is inevitably the case, the polling has been chiefly responsible for reframing how Republicans view the race.
“I think some of the recent polling gives a lot of confidence to the Republicans, yes,” said Senate Republican Whip Jon Kyl of Arizona.
At a Senate Republican luncheon last week, three different senators brought up The New York Times poll showing Romney up before Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), Romney’s congressional liaison, even got to his campaign briefing, according to a source present.
GOP leaders are still somewhat daunted by Obama’s seeming advantage on the electoral map, recognizing that the president has, for now, an easier path to 270 electoral votes than Romney. And more than a few are still concerned about their candidate’s penchant for self-inflicted wounds, wondering only half in jest whether they’d be better off with Romney in a bunker for the duration of the campaign.
But Republican hopes are rising also because their fears over Obama’s campaign are dissipating. This is partly because GOP officials, and even some Democrats, believe Chicago and the White House have not yet found a concise message against Romney — a view that was only bolstered by the Bain Capital/Cory Booker dustup of recent days.
But the more tangible evidence for Republicans that Obama is indeed a political mortal can be found on the balance sheet. Long-held GOP fears about a billion-dollar reelection campaign are fading. With Romney and the RNC raising nearly as much as Obama and the DNC in April, and conservative super PACs far outpacing their liberal counterparts, Republicans believe they may reach financial parity with the president.
“Romney and the RNC are diminishing what advantage the left is going to have,” said Barbour, who nonetheless still thinks that once labor weighs in, Obama will reclaim his money edge.
Leading Republicans involved in fundraising say they’re finding poll-conscious donors increasingly more open to considering the notion of a President Romney.
“More are asking can he [win], which suggests they’re moving in that direction,” said Karl Rove, who advises the super PAC American Crossroads and is in constant touch with donors and GOP insiders around the country.
Officials with Romney’s own super PAC, Restore Our Future, say they went easy on donors last month as the joint fund between the nominee and RNC ramped up.
But the group, which has $8.2 million cash on hand, is going to move aggressively to raise money over the next two weeks and has presentations to wealthy donors slated for New York and Las Vegas.
Republicans have also been heartened by the speed at which rank-and-file conservatives have rallied to Romney. A Gallup poll earlier in the month showed that about 90 percent of Republicans said they’d support their nominee — about the same number of Democrats indicating they’ll back Obama. The New York Times/CBS poll showed similar GOP support for Romney, a little better than Obama was doing in his own party.
“Some of us were surprised at how close [the polls are] immediately after that very divisive primary,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
Part of this is a natural rallying effect in a party that traditionally falls in line. But Republicans say the controversy over Ann Romney’s role as a stay-at-home mother and a Washington Post story about the GOP nominee’s role in a high school bullying episode were well-timed for Boston, spurring even the toughest of Republican Romney critics to move to his side.
Then there is the opposition.
“Barack Obama is the great uniter of Republicans,” quipped Barbour, noting that any conservative concerns over Romney are trumped by the burning desire on the right to unseat the president.
Among GOP elites, though, the newborn optimism over Romney owes to more than just contempt for the alternative. Republican officials have been genuinely impressed with the former Massachusetts governor and his campaign of late.
“Romney has kept the focus on the economy and jobs,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a longtime party strategist. “He hasn’t made any mistakes since securing the nomination. And he has been willing to take the high ground on things like the proposed Rev. Wright attacks. Romney looks like an adult.”
Ken Duberstein, a former Ronald Reagan chief of staff and longtime Republican hand, said such imagery is important.
“He has crossed a plausibility threshold,” Duberstein said. “You can see Mitt Romney as president.”
So after holding their breath over Romney’s performance in the primary and the specter of nominating Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum, there’s a sense now in Republican ranks that they’ve backed a horse that can actually win.
“It feels like from a GOP point of view we’ve nominated the right guy,” said Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.), the chief deputy whip. "He is a non-scary conservative. He’s able to speak to suburban Chicago, suburban Denver, suburban St. Louis.”
Roskam, who along with GOP Whip Kevin McCarthy is in hourly contact with his fellow House Republicans, said the mood in the caucus was “happy talk four or five months ago” and now, “it’s ‘Wow this can happen.’”
A Republican senator said Romney had already crossed a significant hurdle, touching on his challenges as both a onetime moderate Republican and an ill-at-ease politician.
“What I keep hearing people say is that Romney will be a better general election candidate than primary candidate and a better president than candidate,” the senator said.
What few Republicans want to say with attribution is that they’re heartened by how different Romney’s campaign is from McCain’s four years ago. If the Arizonan had a “pirate ship,” Romney is skippering a royal navy vessel minus the rum ration.
“You don’t have to worry about in-fighting, the possibility of a coup all the time,” one Republican strategist said.
But for all observations on tactics, what’s most significant for Republican White House hopes is the economic recovery. The anemic job growth in April and uncertain future of the European economy has clouded Obama’s prospects.
“The clincher may be the economic rather than the political numbers,” Cole said.
“The discussion is shifting back to the economy,” Blunt noted. “And it’s becoming more and more evident that the president doesn’t have much to talk about. It’s not going be a ‘Morning in America’ election again.”
Republicans have long trumpeted the public’s dissatisfaction with Obama’s job performance. But what’s dawning on them now is the notion that Romney can stand up to the incumbent’s onslaught.
“I believe that the public is ready to fire Barack Obama, so the only decision left is are we ready to hire Mitt Romney, and I think we’re in increasingly good shape,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).