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GOP leaders slow to embrace Romney – or his rivals

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STEPHEN OHLEMACHER | January 20, 2012 12:47 PM EST | AP

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WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney may be the front-runner for the GOP nomination for president, but he has yet to win over most of the national party leaders whose help he will need to defeat President Barack Obama in November.

The upside for Romney: They aren't supporting anyone else either.

The Associated Press has polled 87 members of the Republican National Committee who are to attend the party's national convention this summer as free agent delegates, able to support any candidate for president they choose, regardless of what happens in the primaries.

The results: Romney got support from 14, far more than anyone else but hardly a stampede of endorsements. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Gov. Rick Perry got two each, while Texas Rep. Ron Paul and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum each got one. The poll was completed before Perry dropped out of the race Thursday.

Sixty-seven of the RNC members contacted by the AP said they were undecided or simply waiting to see how the race plays out before making a public endorsement.

"If I thought there was someone who stood head and shoulders above everyone else, I would have endorsed," said Jeff Johnson, an RNC member and county commissioner from Minnesota. "I see pluses in all of them, but I decided not to come out in favor of anybody."

Pennsylvania GOP Chairman Robert Gleason said he saw no reason to endorse anyone because a competitive primary is good for the party and the eventual nominee by vetting the candidate while generating publicity and excitement about the race.

"It's working out great for us, and one of these people that is competing with (Romney) could end up being vice president," Gleason said. "I'm pleased with the way things are developing. We're getting all the publicity. It's been pretty favorable for us."

Romney appeared to finish slightly ahead of Santorum in the hours after the Iowa caucuses Jan. 3. However, the Iowa GOP certified vote totals Thursday showing Santorum ahead of Romney. The party decided not to declare a winner because of problems with a few precinct reports.

Romney won handily in New Hampshire last week, and he leads his Republican rivals in the polls nationally and in South Carolina, which votes Saturday. Still, the former Massachusetts governor has been unable to solidify support from many Republicans, some of whom question his conservative credentials.

Stephen Scheffler, an RNC member from Iowa, said he would support Romney if he were the nominee, but he's not excited about the prospect, despite Romney's finish in Iowa.

"He doesn't want to talk to certain segments of the Republican Party," Scheffler said of Romney. "If he's the nominee and they open all these victory offices across Iowa, it's going to be pretty challenging to find volunteers."

Each state plus the District of Columbia and five U.S. territories gets three members on the Republican National Committee. All of them are automatically invited to attend the party's national convention in Tampa, Fla., in August, with a few exceptions. The RNC members from New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida, Michigan and Arizona have been excluded – for now – as part of the penalties they received for holding primaries earlier than party rules allowed.

In many states, RNC members must support the winner of primaries or caucuses in their states. The AP identified 38 states and territories in which the RNC members will be free to support any candidate they choose.

AP reporters started contacting the 114 RNC delegates from these states after Romney won the New Hampshire primary. They were able to reach nearly 80 percent of them.

The RNC delegates make up less than 5 percent of the 2,286 delegates slated to attend the GOP convention, giving them little power to determine the nominee. But these party leaders will be expected to provide manpower, money, local connections and expertise this fall, when the GOP nominee will rely on the party faithful to help defeat Obama.

It will take 1,144 delegates to win the GOP nomination. Romney now has 33 delegates, including those won in primaries and caucuses as well as endorsements from RNC members. Santorum is next with 13.

Joseph Trillo, a state lawmaker and RNC member from Rhode Island, said his support for Romney comes down to political pragmatism.

"He's the only one who I know can beat Obama," Trillo said.

Herbert Schoenbohm, the GOP chairman in the Virgin Islands, said that beating Obama is important, but his support for Romney goes much deeper.

"I'm for (Romney) because he has the best leadership skills," Schoenbohm said in a phone interview. "He made it work in Massachusetts, and that was hard to do in a Democratic state."

Lawrence Kadish, an RNC member from Long Island, N.Y., challenged that assessment, saying Gingrich "towers head and shoulders over those other candidates. I don't view Mr. Romney as having a deep rudder, but he's OK."

___

Lauren Johnert, Associated Press deputy manager for election research and quality control, contributed to this report, along with AP writers Pat Condon in St. Paul, Minn., Marc Levy in Harrisburg, Pa., Mike Glover in Des Moines, Iowa, David Klepper in Providence, R.I., and George M. Walsh in Albany, N.Y.