By CONNIE CASS, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — Now is the time for Mitt Romney to mend his Republican fences and bring around those dubious voters who kept spurning him for Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and others to the right. After a nasty primary battle, his challenge is to somehow excite the party's staunchest conservatives without alienating the independent voters he'll need to defeat President Barack Obama in the fall.
Romney predicted on Wednesday that Republicans will naturally rally together against their common foe, Obama, and focus on their shared distress about the nation's economy — an issue that resonates across the political spectrum.
To smooth the way, party leaders are moving quickly to close ranks, piling on more Romney endorsements after Santorum quit the field Tuesday. It's unclear whether that will be enough to dispense with some voters' worries, stoked by Romney's primary season rivals, that he's an "Etch A Sketch" conservative eager to shift to the center and abandon the conservative base.
While most primary voters surveyed in exit polls said they would ultimately be satisfied with Romney as the nominee, a significant chunk balked. Such surveys conducted in nine states during the primary season found 44 percent of GOP voters said Romney just wasn't conservative enough.
In a close race, Romney couldn't afford to have conservative stalwarts staying home on Election Day out of apathy.
"Each side needs every last breathing voter that is instinctively with them," said prominent social conservative Gary Bauer. "In a close election, 3 or 4 or 5 percent who sit on their hands or are discouraged or alienated could mean the difference in the outcome."
And it's more than just votes that Romney needs from evangelical voters and other social conservatives.
"If you don't get them out there donating, talking to their friends, doing social media, you're missing out on an army that should be activated," said Republican consultant Matt Mackowiak, who was a supporter of former GOP contender Rick Perry. He said Romney needs to address his Mormon faith and must talk about values to stir this group to action.
The traditional means of unifying a party post-primary is through endorsements from the losing candidates. Although Santorum declined to mention Romney in his concession speech, his campaign said he will meet with the former Massachusetts governor and discuss ways to help him.
Santorum said he would "go out there and fight to make sure that we defeat President Barack Obama" — which presumably means getting behind the GOP standard-bearer at some point. Gingrich insists he will stay in the race as a conservative voice, but he also says he will support the eventual nominee. Typically some behind-the-scenes negotiations lead up to such endorsements.
"No one is going to be able to deliver Santorum's and Gingrich's voters better than those candidates," Mackowiak said. "Earning their full-throated endorsements is job one."
Bauer, a Santorum backer who's now pivoted to Romney, said one key to bringing the staunchest conservative voters aboard is choosing a running mate who sparks their enthusiasm — someone with a long record on lower taxes, smaller government, strong national defense and also "values issues," such as abortion and religious liberty.
Romney confidently predicts that the party will be united by its disdain for Obama's efforts to solve the nation's economic woes and his "European social welfare state" policies.
"You will see our party more united that it's been in a long, long time," he told Fox News on Wednesday.
Indeed, many Republicans foresee a general election that focuses on the worries of voters of all political stripes about persistent unemployment, a sluggish economy, taxes and the national debt — with social issues fading with the end of Santorum's campaign.
"Every minute the Republicans spend talking about social issues going forward is strategically a mistake, because the more fertile ground is on the economy and the deficit and spending," Mackowiak said. "Who's going to bring up social issues, Obama? No, they're going to be trying to make this about Romney being part of the 1 percent" of wealthiest Americans.
The best way for Romney to line up the party behind him is to demonstrate how fiercely he can take on Obama, said Republican strategist and pollster Mike McKenna.