Republican front-runner Mitt Romney, right, shakes hands with Florida… (Jae C. Hong, Associated…)
PITTSBURGH — Rick Santorum dropped his presidential bid nearly a month ago, so his meeting here Friday with presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney would have seemed like the perfect opportunity to offer Romney his endorsement.
But even before the 90-minute meeting took place, everyone knew that no such nod would be coming anytime soon. Santorum, like pretty much everyone else who has run in the Republican presidential contest, has embraced the party's standard-bearer with a stiff arm. Of course they will work to defeat President Obama, they say. Yet few have been willing to get behind their party's winner with anything approaching enthusiasm.
When he dropped out of the race last week, Newt Gingrich damned Romney with faint praise, saying that he was no Ronald Reagan and then reiterating in an interview that he thought Romney was a liar. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota got around to endorsing Romney on Thursday, a full four months after she dropped out. And some of the hottest stars in the party avoided weighing in until the race was a foregone conclusion — notably Sen. Marco Rubio and former Gov. Jeb Bush, Floridians whose nods would have meant far more before the state held its crucial primary in January.
"Their endorsements remind me almost of hostages," said Democratic strategist Chris Lehane. "I half expect them to be doing Morse code with their blinks."
It's a contrast from last time around, when Romney endorsed 2008 GOP nominee John McCain and Hillary Rodham Clinton endorsed Democratic nominee Obama, both making the approval official within days of dropping out. Though the races were hard-fought, both nods were considered heartfelt and unequivocal.
Then, Romney called McCain a true American hero and "a man capable of leading our country in this dangerous hour." Clinton told her supporters, who were at times hostile to Obama: "We have to work together. And that is why I will work my heart out to make sure Sen. Obama is our next president. I hope and pray that all of you will join me in that effort."
This time around, the statements are more tepid, focused on the need to unify the party against Obama rather than outright excitement for Romney.
Asked by Fox News' Sean Hannity in late March why he was endorsing Romney, Rubio cited the need to avoid a fight at the party's national convention in August. He called that scenario "a recipe for disaster" that would deliver Obama a reelection victory.
Or, as Gingrich put it when he announced he was ending his bid last week, "I'm asked sometimes, 'Is Mitt Romney conservative?' And my answer is simple: Compared to Barack Obama? This is not a choice between Mitt Romney and Ronald Reagan. This is a choice between Mitt Romney and the most radical leftist president in history."
Political observers say the lukewarm words, at least on the part of former competitors, are a result of the bitterness of the primary, when Romney's victories were driven in part by his ability to crush his rivals financially.
"I think if you do have a bit of a cooling-off period, that it helps — then you can say you weighed the issues, talked to Romney and I'm assured we can go forward," said Tim Hagle, a University of Iowa political science professor.
And then there is the matter of what the others may want. Tim Pawlenty endorsed Romney immediately after dropping out in Iowa last year, in part because the two had developed a warm friendship that led Romney to help Pawlenty ease his campaign debt. Gingrich, who has more than $4 million in debt, is reportedly seeking similar aid.
Romney's enthusiastic endorsement of McCain in 2008 came as he was trying to prove his own bona fides in a party that remains skeptical of his convictions because of his past positions on abortion and other issues. This year, former candidates such as Bachmann and Santorum have no need to prove their Republican loyalties; if anything, they are more concerned with their tea party and social conservative credentials.
In her presidential bid, Bachmann repeatedly criticized Romney's Massachusetts healthcare law, which served as a model for Obama's federal law. According to aides, she held off on her endorsement until she grew confident in Romney's pledge to repeal the federal law.
Santorum, whose 90-minute meeting with Romney was held in a location kept secret until it was over, wants to make sure the voices of social conservatives, tea party members and blue-collar voters are represented in Romney's general election campaign.
"He's there to be their voice to Gov. Romney, to make sure their concerns will be addressed and Gov. Romney represents their views and their values," said his spokeswoman, Alice Stewart. "We'll see what comes of it."
Mehta reported from Pittsburgh and Reston from Los Angeles.