One of those skeptics, Colin Hanna, is standing by the salad bowl. Hanna, the president of Let Freedom Ring, a national conservative group, is confident that Romney can win southeastern Pennsylvania, a critical swing region dominated by moderate Republicans and independents, in the general election. What worries Hanna, a former Chester County commissioner, is Romney’s ability to excite the Right. His right-wing comrades, sipping drinks and talking politics, nod.
“A lot of people are still grieving our good senator’s withdrawal from the race,” Hanna says wistfully. “The real question is, will Romney reach out to conservatives in a meaningful way, or will he take us for granted?” He argues that Romney “missed an opportunity” early on to distance himself from the Bay State health-care program. Romney’s refusal to call the program a “mistake,” Hanna says, is a reason that many conservatives are reluctant to loudly cheer his ascendance.
Finding Hanna’s opposite, someone who is very much enthused by Romney’s rise, is easy. The local politicians, especially the congressmen who will share a ballot with Romney, are excited to have Romney on the top of the ticket. Representative Jim Gerlach, a Philadelphia-area Republican who has won many nail-biting races in a deeply purple district, predicts that Romney will help GOP candidates in suburban areas here and around the country. “We just did an internal poll a couple weeks ago in my district, and he’s beating President Obama right now by about five points,” he says. “I’m very comfortable with him, and that’s why I endorsed him back in November. His private-sector background fits places where the economy is the issue, and his record in Massachusetts, especially in working across party lines, is going to resonate. If he can win in this part of the state, he can win Pennsylvania, and that would mean a lot in November.”
Senator Pat Toomey, a freshman Republican, agrees with Gerlach. Toomey won statewide two years ago on a pro-business message, and Romney, he says, can do the same. “There are an awful lot of Democrats and independents in Pennsylvania who have conservative values, who are culturally conservative, in the broadest sense,” Toomey says. “There’s a commonsense conservatism, and they have seen a Democratic party that has veered way to the left, and that isn’t what they want. If we appeal to those voters and that basic common sense, we can carry a lot of those folks, as I did in 2010, and Governor Romney can carry the state.”
A few minutes later, as the well-dressed party types pack themselves into the ballroom, Toomey talks up Romney in his introductory speech. He praises Santorum, a “man many of us have known,” but takes care to remind the audience, especially the conservatives, that the time for internecine warfare is over, and that Romney has the “tenacity” to win. “I’ve studied his record very carefully, I’ve paid attention to this campaign,” Toomey says. He pauses and looks around the room. “I don’t think there is any question that he governed Massachusetts as a solidly fiscally conservative governor, in spite of having a very liberal legislature.” At that, the crowd applauds. It’s not a roar, but it’s a healthy applause, and Romney, standing aside, beams.
When he visited the Philadelphia suburbs last week, stumping ahead of the state’s April 24 primary, Romney was actively preparing for another brawl with Santorum. His campaign had purchased $2.9 million in television advertising space, preparing to launch an all-out air war. Then, on Tuesday morning, the governor received an “unexpected” call from Santorum, which effectively made him the party’s nominee, Fehrnstrom says. “This has been quite a day for me,” Romney says at the top of his remarks. “I kind of like today, I’ve got to be honest.” He spends the next 20 minutes talking about Obama and the economy. He too praises Santorum.
Beyond that, it’s a version of his usual stump speech. Across the country in Florida, President Obama is already firing away in a speech to college students. Up on stage, Romney crisply details his dissatisfaction with the president’s agenda, point by point. “The right course for America is not to divide America,” Romney says. “[Obama’s] campaign is all about finding Americans to blame and attack.”
The general election has arrived.
But for a minute, Romney, takes a brief sojourn from the script. “It’s a fun night,” he says. “We have work to do ahead of us, but let’s enjoy the night.” The audience murmurs its approval. As the glasses clink, Fehrnstrom and the rest of Romney’s advisers are already back near the bus, on their phones and laptops, looking ahead.
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.