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Many House GOP freshmen still undecided about a presidential nominee

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A year after storming the Capitol in the vanguard of the tea party revolution, the House Republican freshman class has fallen largely silent on the most pressing issue facing their party at the moment: Who should be the GOP presidential nominee?

“Maybe we’re just as undecided as the folks back home,” said Rep. Mick Mulvaney (S.C.), who previously endorsed Texas Gov. Rick Perry but has since decided to stay out of the race after Perry withdrew last month.

The 89 Republican freshmen who took office last year, propelling Republicans into the House majority, were regarded as a crucial new power center in the party, driving much of the political agenda over the last year. But of those 89, only 20 have so far endorsed one of the GOP contenders for the presidential nomination. That’s a far less enthusiastic endorsement rate than the rest of the Republican Conference. And their reasons for staying on the sidelines sound quite similar to those coming from many undecided tea party activists and other conservatives around the country.

Some say the field has been uninspiring and wish that more candidates had jumped into the race. Others say they want voters to make up their own minds. Some just want to focus on their own reelection.

Still others want more time. Unlike many party elders, this group of freshmen wants the primary race to go on deep into the spring so they can fully vet the contenders.

To be sure, congressional endorsements in presidential campaigns are not a sure-fire barometer of success in the primaries and caucuses. According to many veteran lawmakers and freshmen, the massively unpopular Congress has prompted some Republicans on Capitol Hill to stay out of the presidential campaign even if they privately do support one of the candidates.

“None of us are very popular these days,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.), who is Mitt Romney’s consigliere in the Capitol. As he tried to round up support for Romney in Congress, Blunt said he found some lawmakers opting for a “do no harm” approach, wanting to avoid making one of the candidates appear too closely wedded to the Washington establishment.

However, even in this anti-Congress environment, the freshman Republicans hold a special place in the hearts of many conservative voters. To some they still represent the anti-government, anti-debt ethos that inspired tea party voters in 2010.

This is what made the endorsements of Rep. Tim Scott (S.C.) and Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) arguably the most sought after in the run-up to last month’s presidential primaries in South Carolina and Florida.

Scott held town halls in his Charleston-based district, drawing almost the entire presidential field of contenders, all of whom sought the blessing of the charismatic freshman lawmaker. Scott did not endorse and on the eve of the Palmetto State primary, told his local paper he wasn’t even sure who he would vote for the next day.

Rubio, the most prominent freshman senator, withheld his endorsement and instead acted as something of a referee, publicly rebuking former House Speaker Newt Gingrich when he felt that he crossed the line in his criticism of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.

Gingrich has tried to claim the tea party support by arguing that the GOP’s House takeover of 2010 was the natural heir of the 1994 GOP revolution which he led.

However, as the race has sharpened into a contest that pits Gingrich, in the role of the outsider, against Romney, as the establishment insider, the freshmen Republicans have kept their distance.

Just two of the 89 freshman lawmakers have endorsed Gingrich. Of those freshmen that are endorsing, Romney is the favorite of 15 GOP newcomers to the House. One has endorsed Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) and two Pennsylvania freshmen have endorsed former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.), according to the “Endorsement Watch” blog maintained by Roll Call. Overall, 73 members of Congress have endorsed Romney to just 11 for Gingrich.

“Romney is the one that can beat President Obama. There’s nothing more important for me right now than to see a willing partner in the White House,” said freshman Rep. Diane Black (Tenn.), expressing a common view that the former governor is the best general election match-up against Obama.

“We do need someone with big ideas. We don’t need tinkering around the edges,” countered Rep. Andy Harris (Md.), one of the two Gingrich backers among the freshmen. He called the former speaker “transformational”, particularly on health-care issues.

Reps. Jeff Duncan (S.C.) and Steve Southerland (Fla.) both said they were looking for something more in the candidates. Duncan wanted to hear more Reaganesque talk of the “American dream, American exceptionalism.” Southerland said the party would have benefited if some of the others who considered the race — such as Govs. Chris Christie (N.J.), Mitch Daniels (Ind.) and Haley Barbour (Miss.) — had entered.

“It would have been interesting to see some of the other veteran Republicans around the country throw their hat in the ring,” Southerland said wistfully. “But that’s a cancelled check.That’s folly now. We’re dealing with real cash.”

Rep. Chuck Fleischmann (Tenn.), whose chief of staff ran Mike Huckabee’s 2008 presidential campaign, said the former Arkansas governor was the only potential candidate he would support, deciding to stay neutral once Huckabee passed on another bid.

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