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Unsure of the field and hesitant to endorse a loser, Congressional Republicans are remaining noticeably neutral in their party’s 2012 presidential primary.
Just six weeks before the first votes are cast in Iowa, only 66 GOP Members have publicly backed a candidate, compared with 111 at this point four years ago.
In interviews, Republican Members and GOP strategists credited low participation in the primary to Congress’ poor approval ratings, a general lack of enthusiasm for nominal national frontrunner Mitt Romney and minimal confidence that any of the former Massachusetts governor’s opponents can beat him.
“I want to wait and see who appeals to the grass-roots conservatives, and so far, that hasn’t happened. I’d like to be able to say I’m supporting conservatives around the country with this candidate,” said Sen. Jim DeMint, an influential Republican who announced earlier this month that he would not endorse in the primary. DeMint’s backing is coveted for both his national reach and his position representing South Carolina, a key early state.
DeMint, who endorsed Romney in 2008, is not alone among his Senate Republican colleagues from early primary and caucus battlegrounds. Sen. Chuck Grassley (Iowa) also decided not to endorse in the race, as did Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.). Sen. Dean Heller (Nev.) said he doesn’t endorse as a matter of policy. Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and outspoken conservative Rep. Steve King (Iowa) are on the fence, and neither seems in a hurry to weigh in. Sen. Kelly Ayotte (N.H.) seemed hesitant to pick sides in an interview with Roll Call last week but then endorsed Romney over the weekend.
That Congress is held in low regard — with a job approval in single digits in some surveys — has made Republican presidential candidates less eager to seek and tout Member support. The feeling is mutual, with Members lukewarm on anchoring their political fortunes to a White House hopeful.
Romney is the only contender with a concerted whip operation, led by Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.).
One GOP Member said that most Republicans on Capitol Hill expect Romney to be the nominee but that there “is not the same enthusiasm” for him as there has been for frontrunners in the past. Republican strategists with relationships in the House and Senate said Members have been equally indifferent about the rest of the field.
Whether they are concerned that Romney’s moderate image could generate friction with conservative activists back home or are worried that other candidates aren’t viable, Members have felt more comfortable standing pat.