The party establishment seems to be moving Romney’s way, even as a new national poll highlighted the volatility of the race. A Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll showed the surging businessman Herman Cain numerically ahead of Romney for the first time, 27 percent to 23 percent, with Texas Gov. Rick Perry third, at 16 percent.
On Wednesday, Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) and former House speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) became the latest in a string of current and former elected officials who have announced their support for Romney over the past week. Former Republican National Committee chairman Jim Nicholson, hedge fund manager Paul Singer and Home Depot co-founder Ken Langone are among the major Republican fundraisers supporting the candidate.
“It’s all coming together for him,” said Cochran, who formally endorsed Romney on Wednesday. “People are beginning to be impressed with him and his thoughtful comments about the issues.”
The shift is being noticed not just among Republicans, but Democrats as well. In Chicago, President Obama’s campaign advisers increasingly view Romney as the most likely general-election foe, and on Wednesday they attacked the former Massachusetts governor as taking “diametrically opposite positions” on key issues during his political career.
With three months until primary voting begins, Romney and his political team are hoping to create an increasingly narrow path for his opponents by consolidating as much of the GOP around his candidacy as possible.
Still, considerable obstacles stand in Romney’s way to the nomination, namely winning over social conservatives and tea party activists who have been uneasy with the health-care overhaul he championed as governor of Massachusetts, as well as his shifting positions on abortion and same-sex marriage.
An NBC News-Marist poll released Tuesday found that Romney trailed Cain by 16 percentage points (31 percent to 15 percent ) among Republicans in Iowa who consider themselves supporters of the tea party movement.
Perry, considered Romney’s most durable rival, is trying to exploit those weaknesses and may soon open a new front in the nomination battle. After raising $17 million in the last fundraising quarter, Perry has the money to run commercials attacking Romney in all the early-voting states.
“Romney has done well to sort of regain the front-runner status, but I believe Governor Perry is going to be the alternative — the authentic conservative,” said Henry Barbour, a Perry backer and Republican National Committee member from Mississippi. “And the conservative candidate usually wins in Republican primaries.”