Mendenhall, Pa.— At dusk on Tuesday, as the sun sets over the Philadelphia suburbs, Eric Fehrnstrom, Mitt Romney’s senior adviser, steps off of the campaign’s dark-blue bus. His head is down, his hair mussed. As he strolls to the nearby ballroom where Romney will soon speak, his fingers work the keypad of his cell phone. A few hours earlier, Rick Santorum, Romney’s chief rival, suspended his campaign, making Fehrnstrom’s longtime boss the presumptive Republican nominee. But Fehrnstrom isn’t celebrating. In fact, Romney’s entire entourage, the political aides and advance staffers, are pretty much stone-faced and workmanlike. In many respects, from operations to strategy, they shifted to a general-election mindset weeks ago. The Santorum announcement merely made it official.
Backstage, Romney shakes hands with Chester County Republicans near a large bowl of Caesar salad and a pile of miniature hot dogs. Cameras flash. The former Massachusetts governor, in a dark suit and aqua-green tie, poses for pictures. He’s upbeat and smiling. Fehrnstrom, looking on, tells me that the campaign will now, finally, focus its full firepower on the White House. “Our goal, from the very first day Governor Romney got into this race, was to get into a one-on-one contest with the president,” he says. “We have arrived at that point. We will work to accumulate delegates, which continues to be important. But we are very much turning our attention to the imperative of defeating President Obama.”
Around the Beltway, the conventional wisdom, even among sympathetic Republicans, is that Romney arrives a bit late to the general election, and has been bruised by the primary battle. Much has been made about the president’s head start, in terms of fundraising and national organizing. Fehrnstrom shrugs off the anxious chatter. The drawn-out primary made Romney a “better candidate,” he insists. “He had worthy competitors, as many as eight of them who were vying for the nomination at one time. He participated in 20 debates. I think that has tempered him and made him into a stronger candidate.”
Among the hundred-plus local Republicans milling in the reception area here, 30 miles south off Independence Hall, the general sentiment is a 50-50 mix of Fehrnstrom’s optimism and wary skepticism. As I wander from table to table, I hear similar refrains. To all, Romney has been accepted, begrudgingly or warmly, as the nominee. That’s a given. The whispers about a white-horse hero in Tampa have long since faded from popular conversation. And rarely do I hear about Newt Gingrich and Representative Ron Paul. They’re candidates, not top-tier contenders.
Romney, for his part, has many admirers. Activists and donors respect his business background, his values, and his smarts. What Romney lacks, for the moment, are devotees, the kind of people who swoon over a pol. He has yet to prove to many conservative voters, even here in the affluent suburbs, that he can win in the fall — that he’s capable of carrying the party on his shoulders.