Republican presidential hopeful and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is making a concerted effort to build a coalition of House Members to act as campaign liaisons, and early signs indicate that Romney is the likely favorite of a growing number of Republicans, including Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio).
Boehner has not endorsed Romney, but knowledgeable sources said the Minority Leader is leaning strongly in his favor.
“He likes him — a lot — but he’s not there just yet,” said one source.
Last Wednesday, Romney’s exploratory committee announced that Ways and Means ranking member Jim McCrery (La.), a close Boehner ally, would serve as his lead liaison for outreach in the House.
According to McCrery, Romney first sought him out in early December. He said after meetings in Washington, D.C., and Boston, and after consultation with his wife, he agreed to offer his support. “We’ll be his point men in the House,” he said.
Education and Labor ranking member Howard McKeon (Calif.), also a close Boehner ally, is part of the outreach effort as well, as is Rep. Dave Camp (Mich.), who hails from Romney’s home state.
Additionally, Romney has poached former top Capitol Hill staffers, including Kevin Madden, who served as spokesman for Boehner, and Carl Forti, former communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
McCrery’s chief of staff, Brett Loper, a top Republican staffer who once ran floor operations for then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), also will be a resource for McCrery in his work on behalf of Romney.
Minority Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.) also is strongly considering getting behind Romney’s candidacy, although there are no endorsements on the horizon as Blunt continues to meet with the likely GOP candidates, according to sources. However, Blunt’s son, Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt (R), already has endorsed Romney and is building support in Missouri for his likely bid.
The Minority Whip also was on hand for a Thursday luncheon meeting of Rep. Jack Kingston’s (Ga.) “Theme Team” with Romney. Roughly two dozen Members attended the event, and McCrery said Romney made a strong impression.
“He had a very good day,” McCrery said, adding that at least half of the Members in attendance said afterward that they were ready to publicly announce support for Romney.
McCrery said he expected another group endorsement soon from 10 to 15 Members, but declined to name them, and added that he, McKeon and Camp want to devise a broader strategy for rolling out endorsements as Members sign on.
For instance, McCrery said they were working to get a group of Members from Southern states to endorse Romney early, in part to blunt speculation that Romney is not a viable candidate among the Southern evangelical voting bloc because he is a Mormon.
“To the extent we can get Southern Members in the House to come out for Romney it helps to clear up some of that mystery,” McCrery said.
Rep. Marsha Blackburn (Tenn.) has reached out to the Romney campaign, and Rep. Tom Feeney (Fla.) was expected to announce his endorsement Friday.
Romney also had one-on-one meetings on Thursday and Friday with a number of GOP Members, including Boehner, former Speaker Dennis Hastert (Ill.), Chief Deputy Minority Whip Eric Cantor (Va.), and Reps. Mike Pence (Ind.) and Mike Rogers (Ala.).
While McCrery is a recent Romney convert, McKeon said in a brief interview that he has long been supportive of Romney. Like Romney, McKeon is a Mormon.
“I think it’s becoming less of a factor,” McKeon said, noting that Romney has invested a lot of effort in cultivating a relationship with evangelical leaders. “We’re not electing a pastor in chief. We’re electing a commander in chief,” McKeon added.
Both McCrery and McKeon said they have not spoken to Boehner about his support for Romney. And as party leader in the House and someone who is almost certain to play a major role in the 2008 GOP convention, Boehner also may be reluctant to make a formal endorsement, particularly early in the process.
While the 2008 presidential election is 22 months away, Congressional jockeying is already well under way. Romney is building support, but many Members already have made up their minds.
“He had a good message,” said Rep. Todd Platts (Pa.) following the Thursday lunch with Romney. “I’m personally solidly with” Arizona Sen. John McCain.
Still others cautioned that despite the Romney buzz last week, many Members are likely to stay on the sidelines as the presidential field remains in flux. One Member suggested that even if Boehner and Blunt eventually publicly endorse Romney, it may not carry significant weight. “This isn’t a group effort,” the Member said. “Everyone is going to have to decide for themselves.”
“It’s very much up in the air for social conservatives,” Pence said Friday. Pence has had several conversations with Romney and said that while he likes him personally, social conservatives are still largely cautious about Romney on issues of abortion and foreign policy.
Pence, who is closely aligned with outside social conservative groups, said he thought Romney’s Mormon faith was not an insurmountable factor in the race. “It’s not an issue for me,” he said. “I just haven’t yet been convinced that he’s the candidate, but I haven’t endorsed anyone else either.”