Listen to Republican voters and you're likely to hear a reluctance to embrace Mitt Romney's White House bid. At least at first.
The same voters just as readily acknowledge that he might be the Republicans' best chance to defeat President Barack Obama. And that may explain why the former Massachusetts governor isn't sweating even as the buzz revolves around others.
"I'll probably wind up with Romney because, more than anything, what I want to do is to defeat Obama," says Doyle Thomas, a 70-year-old retired attorney from rural Cross City, Fla.
Not that he'll be happy about having to vote for the former Massachusetts governor.
"You can't tell me that Romney is a conservative and was able to be elected in Massachusetts," Thomas adds, shaking his head. "If he were a conservative, there's no way he could have won."
Interviews with more than two dozen Republicans who met here recently to hear the candidates speak at a conservative forum underscored the challenge Romney has faced since he entered the race as the GOP front-runner this spring: People just aren't excited about his candidacy.
And six months later, they're still not.
That's reflected in Herman Cain popping up as Florida activists' favored choice in a test vote last weekend. And the furious speculation surrounding New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's political aspirations. And the great expectations for Texas Gov. Rick Perry's candidacy, which quickly gave way to a measure of disappointment after voters learned that parts of his record deviated from conservative orthodoxy.
Still, many Republicans interviewed here also said they were willing to vote for Romney, whom they see as the strongest to go up against Obama, and set aside their concerns: doubts about his authenticity, holes in his conservative credentials, anger over the health care law he signed in Massachusetts that mandated coverage and skepticism of his Mormon faith.
"Romney seems like a nice guy," said Tom Trombly, a database administrator in his 40s who volunteered on Ross Perot's 1992 presidential bid. "But he sounds like a practiced politician. A lot of the answers are so canned." For now, Trombly's backing Herman Cain but acknowledges he wants a candidate who can beat Obama. He's open to supporting Romney.
And that's what Romney's counting on.
Four years after losing the 2008 nomination, Romney has adopted a slow-and-steady approach to his presidential bid, refusing to react to every campaign development in hopes of drawing headlines. Instead, he's working to convince voters that his economic experience makes him best suited to unseat Obama. His biography aligns with what voters say they want: He spent the bulk of his career in private business; he's friendly with establishment Republicans; he's a former governor; he can raise money and he relishes attacking Obama.
"I'm saying, `Look, I'm the guy at the time that's needed. And if you guys agree, terrific. If you don't, that's your right, too,'" Romney said this week.
Not everyone, though, likes what they're seeing.
In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a woman recently asked Rep. Michele Bachmann what conservatives can do so "we don't have to settle for a Mitt Romney." In what has become her campaign's rallying cry, the Minnesota lawmaker told her: "Don't settle this time."
That feisty message helped Bachmann quickly gain ground early in her presidential bid as she became the Romney alternative. For a few weeks. Then Perry entered the race and stole her momentum. The reluctance to embrace Romney fuels the drumbeat for Christie, as it did earlier this year for Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour. Both ultimately decided against runs.
Even Donald Trump, the real estate mogul and reality TV show celebrity, had his moment in the political spotlight.
All of it represented a hunger for anyone but Romney.
Consider this exchange in a hallway of the Orlando convention center as candidates delivered speeches inside the cavernous meeting space.
"Romney can't quite go the distance," said Don Caquela, a 70-year-old retiree and Air Force veteran from Spring Hill, Fla.
"He's a little too moderate," interrupts his wife, JuDee, a retired defense department employee. "We're conservatives, and Romney is not."
What in Romney's record leaves her queasy?
"I can't warm up to Romney," she said. "I can't put my finger on it. But there's something,"
The couple's ideal candidate: Christie.
The New Jersey governor, who's in his freshman term, insists he's not running. He has done nothing to lay the groundwork for a presidential bid. And deadlines to get on ballots are fast approaching. Yet, an appearance at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., raised hopes among some GOP activists and donors that he'd change his mind.
Romney shrugs off the frenzy as the latest example of a GOP flavor of the month and presses ahead with his steady strategy.
"I could get a quick bump in the polls by saying some outrageous and incendiary things," he told MSNBC this week.
"You just express what you believe, talk about the issues you care about. Hopefully, people will come to you in the final analysis."
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