01/25/2012 12:24 pm ET Updated Mar 26, 2012

To Endorse or Not Endorse: GOP Leaders Still Holding Out on Romney

Much has been made of Mitt Romney's organizational and political advantages in the Republican primary race, including the slew of endorsements he's racked up from GOP leaders and office-holders, far more than his campaign rivals. According to one school of thought, those mounting endorsements, more than the polls, or the results from South Carolina, should eventually tip the race in Romney's favor, despite the stiff challenge he now faces from the surging Newt Gingrich.

But the real bellwether of Romney's standing as a candidate isn't the number of endorsements he's already won -- it's the endorsements he's been denied, and apparently, won't receive. If Romney's position in the race were as strong as his backers suggest, there shouldn't be so many top GOP leaders resting comfortably on the sidelines, announcing that they plan to stay neutral, or even worse, still flirting with the idea of backing someone else.

Take, for example, Sen. Jim DeMint, easily the most powerful Republican politician in South Carolina. DeMint strongly endorsed Romney in 2008 and did everything he could to help him beat John McCain. DeMint's become even more prominent in recent years, and is now the unofficial leader of the Tea party wing of the GOP in the Senate. Had DeMint endorsed Romney in 2012, especially at a time when he was leading Gingrich by double-digits, it would surely have swung more South Carolina conservatives voters behind Romney. And it very likely would have knocked Newt out of the race or tilted it decisively in Romney's favor.

Instead, Romney was left in the unsteady hands of South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, a Tea Party newbie with declining popularity ratings who was largely repaying the debt to Romney for his early endorsement of her gubernatorial bid in 2010. Haley's recently come under heavy fire, including from her own party, for failing to protect South Carolina in an economic dispute with neighboring Georgia, and for an alleged misuse of federal funds. She probably needed her association with Romney during the recent primary battle even more than the candidate did, if only as a convenient distraction.

But for Romney, the endorsement may well have hurt more than helped. Exit polls reveal that he failed to win significant support in the areas where Haley won big in the governor's race in 2010. These were the same areas where Romney himself failed to score in 2008 when he finished a distant fourth in the Palmetto State, all but ending his race for the nomination. In other words, Haley utterly failed to deliver for Romney, further weakening herself and the candidate in the process.

And it's not just South Carolina. In Florida, which is now a must-win for Romney, the former Massachusetts governor has failed to obtain the coveted endorsement of former Governor Jeb Bush, who left office with a 70% popularity rating, and is widely viewed as a powerful voice of the GOP establishment. In a recent statement, Jeb praised Romney, but he also had kind words for Gingrich, and even said he'd be happy to support Rick Santorum in November if he ends up winning the nomination. That's more than a studied non-endorsement of Romney; it's a veritable slap in the face.

In fact, even Florida's recently-elected governor, Rick Scott, as well as its recently elected junior senator, Marco Rubio, who both owe Romney politically as much as Haley does, have announced that they won't make a formal candidate endorsement, leaving Romney to fend for himself. Rubio, who's Cuban-American, is a key bridge to Florida's Republican Hispanics, who constitute an estimated 13-15% of the primary electorate. Romney needs as much of that Hispanic support as he can get if he expects to best Gingrich in what's shaping up as an increasingly tight election battle. (One possible reason for Rubio's hedge: his former Senate campaign chief, Jose Mallea, is now helping Gingrich).

And there are other prominent names on the the list of Romney's non-endorsers. Haley Barbour, the former GOP national chairman, who is also influential in South Carolina and Florida, and who like Bush nearly entered the race himself this year, is staying on the sidelines. So, for the time being is another key party influencer, Rudy Giuliani, who helped New jersey governor Chris Christie get elected, and who would have backed Christie's own presidential candidacy had Christie decided to run. Christie's backing Romney, but that hasn't swayed Giuliani, even though his own preferred candidate Rick Perry, who endorsed Giuliani's own presidential in 2008, is no longer in the race. If anything, Giuliani is leaning toward endorsing Gingrich, whom he pointedly praised several weeks ago as more in keeping with Reagan-era conservatism and more likely to win over independents than Romney.

Arguably, some of those refusing to endorse Romney publicly are still helping him behind the scenes. Romney has amassed a huge war chest through his Super PAC and while it's not yet known who all the donors are, it's widely believed that much of the GOP establishment, including Bush-era operatives like Karl Rove, are quietly funneling donor support to Romney, even as they build up their own 527 campaign organizations. But why are they hedging their bets publicly? Fear of the party base, apparently. It's easier and politically safer to maintain a neutral profile, and to let the primary process play itself out, while quietly weighing helping Romney in the hopes that he'll prevail. A more visible push by the GOP establishment to "coronate" Romney, the strategy pursued with Bush in 2000 and McCain in 2008, could well backfire, some experts believe, leaving the putative front-runner -- and the primary process itself -- under attack for having been "rigged" by party "elites."

But it's a "chicken-and-egg" conundrum, in fact. Not backing Romney more publicly sends a signal to some GOP voters that Romney still lacks credibility, which reinforces their own doubts, and leaves them open to backing other candidates. And the resulting under-performance by Romney in the primaries only saps his credibility further and makes it harder for GOP elites to raise the money Romney needs to prevail, especially in "air war" contests like Florida's where funding for TV advertising typically makes all the difference. It also opens the door to other major funders to match Romney's war-chest.

Of course, there's another possible reason why some prominent non-endorsers like Bush and DeMint are mostly keeping their powder dry. If Romney can't make it on his own, they may well decide they need a late-entering "dark horse" to stop Gingrich from winning. And being formally aligned with Romney too early could undermine their ability to serve as honest brokers in the search for that dark horse -- or in the case of Bush -- to become that horse himself.

At least one prominent Tea Party leader is already predicting a "brokered convention," and a number of other prominent non-endorsers, including erstwhile party diva Sarah Palin, might figure in the final compromise.

Yet, even that cautious calculation is suggestive of the GOP elitism that this year's race seems destined to sweep away.