A year ago, Kim Lehman, a Republican National Committee member from Iowa, paced across the ballroom at the Gaylord Hotel in National Harbor, Md., hunting for votes. The race for the party chairmanship had reached an unprecedented seventh ballot and her candidate, Wisconsin Republican Reince Priebus, was nearing the prize. But he wasn’t there yet.
Lehman, an influential pro-life activist, huddled with her fellow social conservatives, urging them to back Priebus, who, she promised, would be their champion. A few minutes later, the 168 party leaders marked their ballots. The votes were quickly tallied, and a winner was finally declared: Priebus, with 97 votes, had secured the majority, and the chair.
For Lehman, recalling that tense, thrilling moment isn’t merely nostalgic — it’s instructive. This August, when Republicans convene in Tampa, she may find herself once again assisting a conservative insurgent with a floor fight. As a longtime Rick Santorum supporter who is trusted by the former senator’s inner circle, she would be a key figure at a contested convention.
Altogether, the RNC will send over 100 “super delegates,” including Lehman, to the convention. These officials are a sliver of the necessary 1,144 delegates needed to win the nomination. But as party grandees in their respective states, they will likely play an outsize role should no one secure the nomination on the first ballot.
As Lehman explains, it’s the RNC veterans, not necessarily the elected delegates, who will manage the floor should such a scenario unfold. Since the super delegates are familiar with the GOP’s complicated rulebook, they’ll be the ones wooing the party’s unbound delegates and crafting the coalitions.
“I’ve been through this before,” Lehman says. “To win on the floor when there could easily be multiple ballots, you need to know how to lobby people, how to work with different groups.” Her role, she adds, is different than that of John Brabender, Santorum’s top adviser, or Mike Biundo, Santorum’s campaign manager. “I have my niche,” she says. “I’m doing everything I can within that niche, within the RNC, to build support.”
Indeed, as Santorum stumps in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, ahead of those states’ April primaries, Lehman and her allies are focused on another state, Arizona, where RNC members will gather next month. The Scottsdale confab will be members’ first face-to-face meeting since the RNC’s winter conference. Since then, Santorum’s support has grown significantly, and Lehman hopes to see more than a few RNC members — after connecting with like-minded peers — go public with their support.
“We’ll talk on a one-to-one level,” Lehman says. “This is a group that loves politics, that loves debates. But they’re pretty good strategists, too. There are a lot of people who like [Santorum], but until they’re positive that he’s going to win, they’re not going to reveal that. Over the past few months, I think the electability question has been answered; the final part of this process will be encouraging them to stand with us. It can be tricky.”
Romney has also struggled to build wide support within the RNC community. After the early March primaries, the Associated Press surveyed 107 of the RNC’s 117 super delegates. As expected, Romney won that poll — 24 RNC members endorsed him, putting him well ahead of Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and Ron Paul, who all pulled single-digit support. But the biggest winner, Santorum aides remind me, remains “undecided.”
Nevertheless, James Bopp — a committee member from Indiana and the leader of the RNC’s conservative caucus — is confident that his candidate, Romney, will be able to win over a majority of super delegates. By sweeping the Illinois primary on Tuesday, the former Massachusetts governor expanded his delegate-count lead and stirred many Republican observers, especially party leaders, to say that the GOP primary was nearing its conclusion. “Republicans, we don’t want a convention fight if we can avoid it,” Bopp says. “People really want to start focusing on Obama.”
“Barring some very unusual and dramatic event, it’s clear that Governor Romney is going to get the number of delegates he needs before the convention,” Bopp says. “Now, if this goes to a convention, which I don’t expect, I do think I could be very helpful to Romney in that context. I have worked very closely with conservatives at that level. We’ve worked very hard to advance conservative causes and people recognize me as a dedicated activist. Romney has a lot more support among conservatives than the polls — which cut up the conservative vote — give him credit for.”
Still, there is a sense within Santorum’s senior team that if they can turn in strong performances in upcoming states, such as Louisiana and Wisconsin, the party establishment will hesitate to fully embrace Romney before the convention. This would enable Lehman and other pro-Santorum forces within the RNC’s upper echelon to cobble together blocs of undecided Romney skeptics before a Tampa scramble.
Of course, sustaining this strategy — especially in the early summer, when Romney advisers and many Beltway pundits may chide Santorum to leave the race — will not be easy. The pressure for Santorum to bow out, should he remain in second place in the delegate tally after the final primary election in June, will be intense — even if Romney fails to reach the magic 1,144.
In that hypothetical situation, Santorum advisers acknowledge, they’ll need more than super delegates and a handful of primary victories to sustain the campaign’s case. In short, they’ll need the math, as well as the momentum, to move in their direction. Beyond arguing, as usual, that Romney does not have adequate support among conservatives, evangelicals, and blue-collar voters, they want to be able to assert, with evidence, that Romney does not have as many delegates as he claims.
John Yob, Santorum’s senior delegate adviser, began to wage a war on this front on Tuesday. On a conference call, he told reporters that the two most prominent delegate counts — the official RNC tally and the AP’s frequently cited tally — could be flawed. “Most of the media counts that you see out there, and certainly the Romney count, for whatever reason choose to make their assessment based on the straw polls,” he said, “rather than the county conventions and district conventions, which do have an impact.”
The RNC count, which shows Romney leading Santorum by a 416–170 margin, also does not yet include the results from eight caucus states, Yob continued. He predicted that once those states hold their delegate conventions, Santorum’s RNC count will rise, since conservative activists — Santorum’s base — are the major players at these events.
“It’s only projections,” Yob cautioned, but in caucus states such as Iowa, Minnesota, and Missouri, where Santorum has a highly organized delegate-hunting effort, the campaign is slowly closing the gap. “We have a much more invigorated base of grassroots support,” he said.
Meanwhile, beyond the current push to win over delegates at the state level, the Santorum campaign is also contesting the results in Arizona and Florida, which were winner-take-all victories for Romney earlier this year. According to the RNC rules these two states should award their delegates proportionally, Yob said, and he plans to make an appeal before the RNC’s committee on credentials in August, a week before the convention.
Yob is also contesting the final result in Michigan, where Romney snagged both of the state’s at-large delegates. Santorum’s campaign insists that the Michigan GOP, by giving both of its delegates to Romney, bypassed its pledge to award the delegates proportionally.
All of these battles share a purpose — to throw cold water on Romney’s creeping aura of inevitability by positioning Santorum as a delegate-rich contender. “If this race goes to the floor of the national convention, we view that as favorable terrain,” Yob says. Once the RNC settles its count, and the states wrap their conventions, he sees Santorum eclipsing Romney, or, at the very least, emerging as the darling of conservative delegates.
“We have a significant number of RNC members supporting Rick Santorum,” Yob says, “significantly more than the media counts of super delegates represent. We are talking to them about what the strategies at the national convention will be.” According to sources familiar with the campaign’s thinking, nimbly reaching out to Gingrich supporters and embracing the former speaker is part of the floor blueprint, as is connecting with Romney-friendly delegates with deep ties to the conservative movement.
But the immediate challenge is to contest Romney’s growing lead. That’s why the Santorum campaign is putting such an emphasis this week on RNC rules, state conventions, and delegate math. On the surface, they want to compete with Romney in upcoming primaries. Behind the scenes, they’re well aware that they’re being outgunned. So if they can’t beat him now, they want to be in a position to have one final shot in Tampa.
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.