Mitt Romney is the establishment candidate in the Republican presidential field. Everyone knows it.

Of course, there’s this one pesky fact: The GOP establishment, such as it is, had largely sat on its collective hands in the race so far — content to let Romney and the rest of the field duke it out, even as polling suggests that President Obama is gaining strength.

All that might have started to change for Romney on Sunday, however, as House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a leading opponent of Obama and the closest thing in congressional leadership to a tea party leader, jumped off the fence and got behind the former Massachusetts governor.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) endorsed the presidential campaign of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney on Sunday. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Cantor is the first member of the Republican congressional leadership to choose a candidate. (Romney won the endorsement of another well-known conservative on Sunday when Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn backed him.)

Romney has long led in the endorsement chase among members of Congress and senators. Including Coburn, Romney now has the endorsement of 16 senators and 67 House members, according to a chart compiled by Roll Call. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is next, with 11 House and Senate endorsements, while former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum has the backing of just four House members.

But with a few exceptions — Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and John Thune (S.D.) being two — most of Romney’s endorsements from congressional leadership have been of the backbench variety. They’re nice to have, but they have little practical impact on the race. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) has stayed silent. So too have tea party Sens. Jim DeMint (S.C.) and Marco Rubio (Fla.).

Romney also has 10 governors supporting his campaign. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is a genuine Republican star and a major get for Romney, but the likes of Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and former Florida governor Jeb Bush have stayed on the sidelines.

Why haven’t the major establishment figures in the party lined up behind Romney up until now? A variety of reasons — some of which are undoubtedly personal.

But, the biggest one is that the last thing any politician wants to do in this fervently anti-incumbent, anti-status quo environment is make it look as though they are playing an active role in circumventing the wishes of Republican voters. Why stick your neck out for a guy who might not even be the nominee?

Cantor’s endorsement may well be a leading indicator that the party poobahs — such as they are — have decided that the primary fight has gone on long enough and the time has come to unify behind Romney and begin to focus full-time on beating Obama.

Much will depend on how Romney fares on Super Tuesday. It’s not hard to imagine that if Romney wins in Ohio tomorrow that House Speaker John Boehner, who holds an Ohio House seat, might feel as though now is the time to get behind the frontrunner. Boehner’s office didn’t return an e-mail on Sunday seeking comment on the speaker’s thinking in regards to an endorsement.

If Romney is able to win Ohio — polling shows him in a dead heat with Santorum — as well as Virginia, Massachusetts and Vermont, he would open up a substantial delegate lead over Santorum, Gingrich and Texas Rep. Ron Paul.

That delegate edge, when coupled with polling that suggests Obama has significantly strengthened his position vis-a-vis the Republican field, could well provide the twin catalysts necessary for the establishment to support Romney in force.

Santorum’s delegate problem: Romney’s campaign this weekend sought to play up the fact that Santorum isn’t even eligible for some delegates on Super Tuesday. The former Pennsylvania senator isn’t on the ballot in Virginia and will forfeit upwards of one-quarter of Ohio’s 66 delegates because he didn’t file for a full slate of delegates.

It’s a strong argument, given that, at the conclusion of the Michigan primary last week, Santorum’s campaign said that the delegate count is all that matters. Even if Santorum wins the popular vote in Ohio, because he didn’t file for 18 delegates there, it’s quite possible he would still lose the delegate battle.

In response, Santorum said Sunday that filing occurred at a time when his campaign had much fewer resources.

“We got on a lot of ballots that people just thought we wouldn’t, and I feel very good that we got on enough, clearly enough to be able to win this nomination,” Santorum said.

American Action Network backstops Hatch: Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) is getting an assist as he gets closer to what could be a tough state party convention vote in April.

The American Action Network is going up with a 10-day TV and internet advertising campaign on behalf of Hatch, who faces a challenge from his right from state Sen. Dan Liljenquist.

The TV buy begins today and runs in the Salt Lake City media market . The group said the ad buy amount is in the low six-figures — about 800 points worth.

“From his leadership on the Balanced Budget Amendment to his 100 percent American Conservative Union voting record last year, Orrin Hatch has a solid conservative record that Utah can rely upon,” said AAN president Brian Walsh. “What do we really know about state Sen. Dan Liljenquist? It’s tough to say considering his brief time in public office, propensity to skip votes when he was there and his opposition to government transparency.”

Hatch faces a convention vote in which he needs to get at least 40 percent to make the primary ballot. Sen. Robert Bennett (R-Utah) fell short of that threshold two years ago.


Rush Limbaugh apologizes to Sandra Fluke for calling her a “slut,” just as advertisers begin to boycott his show. And Gingrich says an apology was the right call.

Romney says Iran will have a nuclear weapon if President Obama is reelected. Obama weighed in on Iran at a speech before AIPAC this weekend.

Romney goes South.

Romney showed some emotion while talking about veterans benefits at Mike Huckabee’s forum in Ohio, at one point choking up.

Santorum says he needs a one-on-one contest with Romney to win, and he expects he’ll get it.


Super Tuesday contests will reshape GOP race” — Dan Balz, Washington Post

As Newt Gingrich lowers Super Tuesday expectations, he pins hopes on Georgia” — Amy Gardner, Washington Post

Gingrich Advisor’s Ties to Foreign Interests” — Ben Freeman and Lydia Dennett, Huffington Post