WASHINGTON -- Months after he mathematically locked up the Republican presidential nomination, Mitt Romney remains a political hairball that GOP insiders -- conservative and otherwise -- wish they could cough up before the convention in Tampa, Fla., next month.
The likelihood of their doing so is slim to none, party sources said. But that doesn't mean that they are happy to have Mitt atop the ticket.
That is the real, unspoken political meaning behind the remarkable, rising chorus of voices calling on the presumptive party nominee to release more of his federal tax returns to the public.
"The fact is, no one likes the guy or believes in him," said the campaign manager for a former Romney rival, who declined to be quoted by name because his former boss is on record supporting Romney's campaign against incumbent President Barack Obama.
"Look back at our 2008 primaries," he said. "Who did all the other candidates dislike? Romney. Look at this year. Who did all the other candidates dislike? Romney. No one wants Obama to win, but no one likes the guy who is running against him."
Republican leaders, especially conservatives, see Romney as a malleable, cynical power-grabber without principle or compass. They warned voters that Romney would be unable to take the fight to Obama on health care because he had fostered a similar program as governor of Massachusetts, and they argued that a wealthy, well-connected son of privilege was not a good spokesman for selling free-market ideas to the middle-class.
Over the last week, a disparate array of Republican and conservative leaders have called on Romney to do what he is clearly loath to do: release several years if not a decade or more of his federal tax returns. It is an unspoken form of payback.
The list is not only a veritable who's who of the party, but a not-so-subtle roster of people who opposed Romney for the presidential nomination. That they have not fallen in line behind Romney's stonewalling is a telling sign.
Among those who have called on Romney to disclose are figures tied to the candidates who opposed Romney in the Republican primaries, and who are clearly not willing to do him any favors now. They include Rick Tyler, a close and longtime adviser to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich; John Weaver, who served in a similar capacity in the campaign of former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman; former GOP candidate Rep. Ron Paul of Texas; Gov. Rick Perry of Texas (who said that ALL candidates should disclose their returns); and conservative pundit William Kristol, who is close to former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, among other former candidates.
Normally, defeated primary rivals quickly fall in line behind the strategy and message of the winning candidate. In this crucial case, Romney's former rivals have done just the opposite on what Romney has made clear is a crucial issue.
Equally noteworthy are the party leaders and pundits who have left the Romney Alamo. They include former party chairs Haley Barbour and Michael Steele, and pundits George Will, David Frum, the editors of National Review and, to a degree, the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal.
As if to add insult to injury, the GOP's 2008 standard-bearer, Sen. John McCain, said on Tuesday that he had picked former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate because she was the best candidate for the job -- a sock to the jaw to Romney, who had been on McCain's veep list.
Even before the tax return issue had come to dominate the campaign, News Corp. boss Rupert Murdoch had complained about what he regarded as the ineptitude and lack of focus of the Romney team.
And Congressional Republicans were upset with Romney's insistence that his health care plan in Massachusetts was based on "penalties," not taxes. The GOP wants to run against the president on the notion that his version of health care -- similar to Romney's -- is a "massive tax increase." Mitt muddled the message.
"Romney threw them under the bus and they aren't going to stand for it," said Hogan Gidley, media director for Santorum's campaign. "The idea that Obama health care is a tax increase is a key to the whole Republican campaign."
Seen as arrogant and aloof by his rivals, Romney is said to have few friends or ties among his former challengers or elsewhere in the GOP and conservative ranks. He has money and a tight and loyal cadre of operatives, but they find themselves without many allies as they try to argue that their boss should be allowed to keep his business dealings and taxes private.
"There are those of us who think that Romney is destined to lose, and they are behaving accordingly," said the former manager of another campaign, who also declined to be quoted because his boss has endorsed Romney.
"Everybody's looking ahead to the next round. They won't say it, but they are."