Even as Mitt Romney begins courting moderate and independent voters who could determine the outcome in November, his campaign is still working behind the scenes to shore up support from conservatives who have yet to fully embrace him.
Peter Flaherty, Romney’s liaison to social conservatives, is planning to fly to Washington this month to meet with key conservative leaders at a breakfast hosted by Edwin Meese III, who was President Reagan’s attorney general, according to Bay Buchanan, a Romney adviser who is helping to arrange the meeting.
The campaign has hired Michael Biundo, Rick Santorum’s former campaign manager; talks regularly to Keith Nahigian, Michele Bachmann’s former campaign manager; and recently received the endorsement of Rick Perry, the Texas governor who was Romney’s bitter rival during the early stages of the Republican primary.
Buchanan, meanwhile, continues to meet with conservative leaders at Grover Norquist’s regular Wednesday breakfast gatherings, and at a weekly meeting of conservatives hosted by Morton Blackwell, a veteran activist and longtime member of the Republican National Committee from Virginia.
Romney is also preparing to make an overt appeal to Christian conservatives when he delivers the commencement address on May 12 at Liberty University in Virginia, the evangelical institution founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell.
Many conservatives are also hoping Romney will pick a staunch social and economic conservative as his vice presidential nominee, as a sign that he will not abandon conservative principles as he refocuses on swing voters and the general election match-up with President Obama.
The results of Romney’s efforts have, so far, been mixed.
Although many conservative activists say their overriding desire to oust Obama has helped thaw the once-cool relationship with Romney, some complain that Romney’s efforts have not gone far enough and that conservatives, particularly evangelical Christian activists and social conservatives, are not excited about the presumptive Republican nominee.
These activists want Romney to speak more boldly and openly about social issues, and are frustrated by his nearly single-minded focus on the economy. They also want him to appear at more Christian-centered events, and worry that his Liberty appearance will be his last token gesture to Christian conservatives before the fall.
Some also complain that Romney recently hired as his foreign-policy spokesman Richard Grenell, a former George W. Bush administration official who is gay and has expressed support for same-sex marriage.
“That’s like throwing salt into a wound, and that’s the absolute wrong decision if he wants to reach out to the conservative base and unite them,’’ said Mathew D. Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, a conservative legal group affiliated with the Liberty University School of Law.
Conservatives say the question is not so much whether they will vote for Romney, but whether they will volunteer for his campaign, donate money, and create the kind of enthusiasm he will need to overcome Obama’s formidable operation.
“They’re going to vote for him,’’ said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian think tank. “It’s a matter of: Are they going to work for him? Are they going to put up yard signs? Are they going to talk to their friends?’’
Perkins said he has been disappointed with Romney’s outreach to conservatives so far, saying “I haven’t seen a whole lot.’’
Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, took a more positive view.
Land said that the day after Santorum dropped out of the race, a senior Romney aide called him to ask what Romney needed to do to appeal to evangelical voters.
Land said he urged Romney to speak out against abortion and same-sex marriage, to express unwavering support for Israel, and to frame the national deficit as a moral issue.
“You can always do more but, frankly, I’ve been impressed with the governor’s performance, now that he’s become the [presumptive] nominee,’’ Land said. “He seems to have a new bounce in his step and a new authority in his voice.’’
Buchanan said that, at meetings with conservative leaders in Washington, she now senses “very limited animosity’’ toward Romney compared with several months ago, when Santorum was the favorite of many in the movement.
“They’re talking, and they’re friendly,’’ said Buchanan, whose brother, Pat, ran three times for president. “I do feel they want to firm up where he stands in their minds in order to cross the bridge to an enthusiastic endorsement, but that is happening.’’
As part of that effort, Romney huddled in Washington last month with a small group of influential conservatives, including Meese, Edwin J. Feulner of the Heritage Foundation, and Darla St. Martin of the National Right to Life Committee.
“This is something we’ve been doing for many years and now, just because he’s the presumptive nominee, that will not change one bit in a general election,’’ Flaherty said. “Mitt will continue to meet with conservative leaders.’’
Of those who are not supportive, he said: “I know that’s the exception as opposed to the rule.’’
Generating excitement can be tricky, however, even within conservative circles.
The Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, a leader of the nation’s growing Hispanic evangelical population, recently fielded a call from Flaherty and told him he wants Romney to support a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants and to drop his tough rhetoric on immigration.
Doing so, however, would inevitably anger conservatives and Tea Party movement activists who oppose amnesty programs for illegal immigrants.
“I’m concerned,’’ about Romney’s efforts to woo Hispanic evangelicals, said Rodriguez, the president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, who added that evangelicals are focused “not on the donkey or the elephant, but on the lamb.’’
“If you call me in 30 days and the Romney campaign does not have a Hispanic outreach director, I may well be disappointed,’’ he said. “I am very concerned because time is of the essence.’’
A Romney aide said the hiring of a Hispanic outreach director is “in the works.’’
Al Cardenas, chairman of the American Conservative Union, said he keeps a list of 150 influential conservatives and Romney or his top aides have met with about half of them so far.
Some still have raw feelings from Romney’s attacks on their preferred candidate in the primary; others have long been skeptical toward Romney because of the moderate positions he took as governor of Massachusetts and as Senate candidate in 1994.
“Whenever there’s not an established relationship and you find yourself in an adversarial position in the primary, that trust issue takes time to build up,’’ Cardenas said.
“The good news is there is glue that binds us together, and that’s making sure there’s a change in the White House,’’ he said. “But it’s important to make sure everyone is excited about the journey.’’Michael Levenson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.