There is a key bloc of Republican voters whose ambivalence has turned the GOP nomination contest into an erratic mix of roller-coaster ride and dating game. They flirted with Donald Trump and then embraced Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) before jumping on and off the Rick Perry bandwagon. At different times they yearned for Govs. Mitch Daniels of Indiana and Chris Christie of New Jersey and, always, some have cast a longing eye in the direction of former Alaska governor Sarah Palin.
The one point on which they have been most consistent, however, is their resistance to the candidate who has been making his case the longest: former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.
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.
The latest embrace from these voters is to businessman Herman Cain, who shot up from 8 percent in July to 22 percent this month among strong conservatives on the heels of a win in the Florida GOP straw poll.
But some conservatives say Cain’s light campaigning in the early primary states means he is unlikely to turn his recent momentum into a formidable challenge to Romney.
“I don’t know any Republican or conservative activist who really believes he is running for president of the United States,” said Steve Deace, a conservative talk show host in Iowa, arguing that Cain is largely trying to increase his fame through his White House run. “He has no certifiable on-the-ground operation in Iowa.”
And they say Perry will get a second look largely because of the $17 million he has raised for his campaign over the past three months, the most of any candidate.
“The HPV thing, immigration — he’s [Perry] obviously not the ideal,” said Andrew Hemingway, chairman of the Republican Liberty Caucus of New Hampshire, a conservative group that protested at a Romney speech in September. “But if it comes down to Romney and Perry, I’ll be with Perry.”
Julie Roe, a party activist in central Iowa, said, “Perry is okay; I could cast a vote in good conscience for him, warts and all.”
She added, “I would have to think about whether I would grace my bumper with a sticker or my yard with a sign.”
But the Texas governor is having to reestablish his conservative bona fides after increased attention to his support of a policy in Texas that grants in-state tuition to illegal immigrants. Campaigning in Iowa on Saturday, he listed all of his moves to limit illegal immigration in Texas, but voters kept pressing him on the tuition issue. Perry has said he stands by his decision. But he has said he erred in ordering mandatory inoculations of young girls with the HPV vaccine, which protects against a sexually transmitted virus that can cause cervical cancer.
“I wasn’t sure, really, I got what I was looking for,” said Fae Groff-Moritz, a medical records clerk who asked the governor about his immigration stance after an event in Orange City. She said Perry’s policy sounded as if he was giving illegal immigrants a “free ride.”
She added that she was considering several candidates, including Perry, but “I was really hoping for Christie.”
For Perry, consolidating this voting group is critical. The Republican field is effectively divided into two groups of candidates, with Romney and former Utah governor Jon Huntsman Jr. on the more moderate end, and Bachmann, Cain, Perry and others competing for the most conservative voters. Most party strategists believe the strong backers of Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.), the most libertarian of the Republicans, are unlikely to defect to another candidate and too few in number for him to win the race.
This dynamic is illustrated by how the candidates are handling the early states in the primary calendar. Romney has made few visits to Iowa, which has historically been dominated by the most conservative Republicans, while Bachmann and others have effectively ceded the more moderate New Hampshire to Romney.
Huntsman has not emerged as a real threat to Romney for the GOP moderate vote nationally or in New Hampshire. But the rise of Cain and the candidacies of Bachmann and former senator Rick Santorum, who are also aggressively courting the most conservative Republicans, are complicating Perry’s efforts to emerge as the favorite of voters who don’t like Romney.
Some anti-Romney Republicans are beginning to acknowledge that their votes could be divided, leading to a Romney victory.
“If Romney wins, it would show the weakness of us as a movement,” said Deace of conservatives.
But other Republicans remain confident that the party’s anti-establishment wing will eventually find a champion who will compete in a long primary battle with the former Massachusetts governor.
“When I meet with people in the grass roots, in a crowd of 100, when you ask who is for Romney, you only get one or two hands up,” said Adam Brandon, a spokesman for the tea party-affiliated group FreedomWorks. “There’s a huge opening.”
Polling manager Peyton Craighill contributed to this report.