WASHINGTON — Conservatives are fired up, convinced that this will be a big year, but they worry that Mitt Romney will make their task harder.
The foot soldiers of the American political right have been meeting in Washington this week, and stickers and signs touting the former Massachusetts governor — who's still the favorite for the GOP presidential nomination — are scarce here.
People at the Conservative Political Action Conference say they'll back Romney if he's the nominee, and he got a warm reception Friday. "I know conservatism because I have lived conservatism," he told the crowd, and declared, "I was a conservative governor."
But in the halls, people spoke more fondly of former Pennsylvania U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, a former speaker of the House of Representatives. They often recited qualms about Romney's center-right record as governor, notably his support for a state health care mandate.
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Mary Ann Taylor, a retired teacher from Charleston, S.C., strongly backs Santorum. What if Romney's the nominee? "I'm a strong Republican. I do not want to see four more years of Obama," she said.
Would she actively work for Romney? "I certainly would not campaign against him," Taylor said.
Like hundreds at this three-day conference, she's a disciple of the modern American conservative movement born more than a half-century ago. They espouse principles with roots in the writings of Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, author William F. Buckley Jr. and President Ronald Reagan.
Their goals remain the same: Get government off our backs. Keep taxes low so people can best choose how to spend their own money. Promote strong nuclear families and faith in God. Maintain a strong national defense.
Today's conservatives see President Barack Obama as an easy target, and, as a result, they see 2012 as full of promise.
They even got fresh momentum this week, as the White House dealt with controversy over its initial support for requiring religious-affiliated organizations, such as Roman Catholic hospitals, to offer contraceptives as part of their health care coverage.
"It shows not only insensitivity, but outright hostility by the president to religions and religious values," said Ralph Reed, the founder and chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition.
Yet there's concern that the energy and firepower on the right could fizzle.
Except during the two hours before Romney's speech, it was nearly impossible to find any Romney paraphernalia. Throughout the three-day conference, people routinely walked around wearing stickers that expressed support for Gingrich and Santorum. Some younger attendees touted Texas U.S. Rep. Ron Paul.
"We know what we're going to have to deal with when I'm 40," said Alex Rowson, a 22-year-old University of Idaho engineering student. "Ron Paul has principles and concrete ideas."
Gingrich had a corps of supporters, and he used his remarks Friday to bash the Republican establishment. "This campaign is a mortal threat to their grip on the establishment because we intend to change Washington, not accommodate it," he said.
He got scattered, polite applause.
Santorum, who spoke with his family standing behind him, also got a polite though not overwhelming response from the crowd. They liked his logic: "Why would an undecided voter vote for a candidate the party's not excited about?" he asked.
Audience members voiced warm praise for Santorum.
"He's actually the true conservative," said Craig Talarico, a Johnstown, N.Y., substitute teacher.
Gingrich has fans such as Miki Booth, of Wyandotte, Okla., founder of the Route 66 Tea Party. She likes Gingrich's energy and independent spirit.
Romney's not disliked, and people praised how he made a case for his candidacy by reciting how conservative principles have guided his life. He just doesn't kindle any sparks.
"We have problems with all the candidates," added Scott Edwards, a Portland, Ore., political activist. "We're not going to get the perfect candidate. Romney has a failure to connect, to speak the language."
Some political pros are concerned.
"I'm worried about it," said David Bossie, the president of Citizens United, a conservative grass-roots group. Bossie, who's worked on conservative film projects with Gingrich, said Romney would have to spend too much time assuring the conservative base that he was genuine. Other Republican candidates, Bossie argued, could spend that time wooing the political middle.
Of particular concern is that the issue that makes Romney the strongest, the economy, could fade. Romney touts his background as a corporate turnaround artist. But with the economy slowly recovering, Obama may be able to make that argument even better.
"We're setting ourselves up to lose if the economy improves," conservative commentator Erick Erickson said.
Reminders that the cause is bigger than any single person somewhat ease the fears of Romney presiding over a conservative disaster.
Remember, Reed said, the 2010 tea party movement didn't originate with party leaders, but from people around the country who formed a loose coalition and helped elect dozens of Republicans to Congress.
Some conservatives take solace in a subtle but important change in Romney's performance in recent days. They see him getting more personal, even somewhat more passionate.
"I will come to Washington, and, with your help and guidance and prayers, I will change Washington," he said Friday, "and then I will leave Washington and go back to the life and family I love."
But will such thoughts be enough to fire up this crowd in the fall?
"We would all converge around Romney," said Teresa Frerking, a Goshen, Ky., retiree. She said it with no emotion.
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