09/12/2011 04:00 pm ET Updated Nov 12, 2011

Pawlenty Endorsement, Huckabee Praise Signal Elite Support For Romney

The GOP doesn't do "superdelegates" in the way that the Democrats do "superdelegates" (and after 2008, you can hardly blame them). But their elites do like to throw their weight around, and Monday, with Romney earning both the endorsement and the material assistance of Tim Pawlenty, it's starting to become clear that the party elites are coming home to Mitt Romney. Since then, Mike Huckabee has followed suit, by going on Laura Ingraham's show and saying something nice about Romney, while attacking Rick Perry with the Romney campaign's preferred line du jour. Per Maggie Haberman at Politico:

"What Tim [Pawlenty] is looking at is the fact that Mitt may be the most electable Republican," said Huckabee, adding at another point, "We've got good candidates that aren't getting enough airtime, I was keeping count. Rick Perry got 15 questions posed; Rick Santorum and Herman Cain got five. I've been in that situation when you're stuck out on the edge of that platform and you're given token opportunities to respond and it's very difficult to break out when the press decides who is going to be in the game and who isn't."

Also, he said bluntly: "Perry hurt himself a lot with his Social Security talk and what he said may be technically true, but you go to South Florida or even any part of Florida or even the part where I live in the panhandle where you have a lot of retired people and essentially say that Social Security is a criminal enterprise, that's problematic."

Huckabee obviously stops short of an endorsement, instead beseeching the press to give some of the other candidates a fair shake and not declare a premature consensus. But, you know, if there's going to be a premature consensus anyway, Huckabee's going signal support for Romney. This is surprising. As Haberman points out, Huckabee's had beef with Perry prior to the 2012 cycle, but he's really well known for his intense dislike of Romney. Haberman knows this only too well. Let's cast our memory back to late February, at a time when Huck was still contemplating a run:

Mike Huckabee may be especially tempted to run in 2012 by a lingering feud between him and Mitt Romney, a severe hangover from the 2008 campaign that has created a lasting and bitter rift between the two, Republicans who know both men say.

"[Huckabee] hates Mitt, and his goal in Iowa last time was to stop him," said one prominent Republican, who's known both men for years. "If he sees an opportunity to cut Mitt off [during the nominating process], he will take it."

Of course, one Huckabee backer said at the time that it was "ludricous" that "a person would go through the rigors of running for president due to some personal grudge." And hey, as it happens, Huckabee ultimately decided not to run!

But this "saying something nice about Mitt Romney" stuff is pretty new to Huckabee. Frankly, it's new to Pawlenty, too -- it was TPaw who coined the term "ObamneyCare" back during those early days on the campaign trail when it looked like he might go on the offensive against the guy who was, at the time, the frontrunner. And, as recently as August, Huckabee was urging Pawlenty to stay in the race. Now, both men -- in different ways, to be sure -- are both aligning themselves with Romney. This is all a part of the "invisible primary," and, as Matt Yglesias points out, the importance of these alliances isn't that a Tim Pawlenty brings Mitt Romney a pot of votes. Rather, "this is one of the ways party leaders signal and coordinate with each other."

In a race where the nominee is basically going to be either Rick Perry or Romney, things like Karl Rove and Dick Cheney taking swipes as Perry last week constitute de facto support for Romney. Yet it's explicit support for Romney as offered by Pawlenty that sends the clearest signal that conservatives should regard Romney as acceptable. Pawlenty never had a huge Q rating or an ecstatic fan base, but high-information conservatives and dedicated activists all know who he is and all know that the knock on him is that he's too boring not that he's not a real conservative. No single endorsement matters very much, but Romney's ability to wrack up a series of endorsements from blah plain vanilla current and former Republican elected officials probably matters a lot in a matchup against Perry.

Among other things, it will begin to quell the calls for some idealized "savior" candidate to jump into the race. More importantly, you can expect Romney to have the mantle of "electability" bestowed upon him. And this was somewhat inevitable -- for a long while, Romney has been the choice of GOP "insiders." As a matter of decoding the media narrative, you should start treating the word "electable" as "acceptable to elite partisans," and not "the guy the base is more enthusiastic about." Speaking of:

A new CNN/Opinion Research survey finds Rick Perry leading Mitt Romney in the GOP presidential race by double-digits, 32% to 21%, with Ron Paul at 13% and all other candidates in single digits.

Most interesting is that Perry's biggest strength may be the electability factor, with 42% saying he has the best chance of beating President Obama next year. Some 26% say Romney has the best chance of defeating the president.

At the moment, the base isn't playing along with the elites. Whose support is more important? Well, it's worth noting that our own Jon Ward reports that Perry plans to "soften his rhetoric" on social security.

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