The anti-Romney activists, many of whom identify with the tea party movement, say they are hesitant about Romney because they simply do not trust his conservative credentials, recalling his past support of abortion rights and a health-care mandate.
But it is these activists and voters like them who could eventually decide who gets the nomination. Do they coalesce around a single alternative, such as Perry, or do they continue to divide their support among all of the other hopefuls?
Or do they swallow their misgivings and begin to give Romney another look based on the argument that he is their best chance to beat President Obama in 2012?
Many Republican donors and establishment figures have flocked to the former Massachusetts governor in the days since Christie said he would not run, arguing that Romney is the strongest and most electable GOP candidate.
In interviews over the past several days, key anti-establishment party activists say they are reevaluating the Republican field now that Christie and Palin have said they aren’t running, and will watch closely in the next three months to see who emerges to take on Romney, who they acknowledge is now the front-runner for the Republican nomination.
“There’s no Christie, there’s no Palin, there’s no speculation,” said Ryan Rhodes, head of the Iowa Tea Party. “So everything starts over.”
Romney, like most of the Republican candidates, has largely embraced positions held by party activists: committing to repeal the health-care law signed last year by Obama; calling for reduced federal spending, but no tax increases, to balance the budget; and opposing same-sex marriage and abortion.
But his record in Massachusetts, particularly a universal-health-care law he crafted, leaves many conservatives unwilling to trust him. Despite what Republicans describe as an almost flawless campaign operation, he does not exceed 30 percent of the vote in most national polls or more than 25 percent in Iowa despite having run for president for essentially the past five years.
But he’s still ahead. Rhodes, who attacked Romney as a “liberal,” says he is sticking for now with Bachmann. But the Minnesota lawmaker’s declining fortunes illustrate how many Republicans have ironclad beliefs about conservative policy but very mutable feelings about their candidates.
Washington Post-ABC News national polls show that among the nearly one-third of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents who describe themselves as “very conservative,” Bachmann’s support dropped from 26 percent in July to 7 percent in a survey this month. Perry plunged from 45 percent last month to 18 percent in October after a series of lackluster debate performances and controversial remarks on immigration.