A GOP congressman's phone rings, and it's Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah at the other end of the line.
"Hey, I'm calling about Mitt Romney," Chaffetz says, recalling his typical spiel to fellow Republicans.
"Where are you on this?
"Have you seen any of the debates?
"Can I send you some clips?"
Two months before Republicans begin choosing a nominee to challenge President Barack Obama, Chaffetz and a select few members of Congress are quietly but constantly coaxing colleagues to pick sides in a Capitol Hill endorsement war.
The ritual is as familiar as it is discreet. A public nod from a lawmaker can be worth thousands of votes and millions of dollars in campaign cash. The intensity of this race-within-a-race suggests that nobody, including the tea partyers who swept the GOP into the House majority, has changed the cash-driven way political Washington works.
Endorsements "can boost a candidate early in the process, encourage contributors to back them and workers to go to work for them," said former Missouri Sen. Kit Bond, a Republican and former governor who "took a long walk off a short pier" in 2008 by endorsing the doomed candidacy of Rudy Giuliani. Bond is staying neutral this time.
"For every endorsement you get and have in pocket, that's one your opponent is not getting," said Bob Stevenson, a Republican strategist and former Senate leadership aide. "There is some satisfaction in knowing an important politician will be working for you and not against you," said Stevenson, who has not endorsed a candidate.
The tally so far, according to the campaigns: Romney has lined up at least 33 current members of Congress. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who declared his candidacy only two months ago, has chalked up at least 14, according to both campaigns.
Herman Cain, the former chief executive of Godfather's Pizza, has only a fledgling campaign presence after his meteoric rise in the polls in recent weeks, but he's working to build a following in meetings Wednesday with lawmakers. Four House names _ former Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, libertarian Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, Minnesota Rep. Michelle Bachmann, who is a tea party booster, and former congressman and ex-Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania _ have tiny corps of supporters.
Lawmakers, held in lower esteem than the presidential rivals, are nonetheless valuable to the candidates because they control a motherlode of on-the-ground political power and campaign cash. Each House member represents an average of 700,000 people; every senator has an active statewide network of supporters and contributors.
The courting happens almost always off camera, anyplace where lawmakers can pick up a phone or see one another _ on the House and Senate floors, in the cloakrooms, underground subways and discreet event sites a few blocks from the Capitol.
It's seldom discussed until there's a trophy to show off, like the fundraising breakfast thrown for Romney last week by more than 45 congressional supporters and other Washington insiders, or the dinner and meetings members of the Georgia delegation put together this week for Cain.
Cain's tour of Capitol Hill was designed to introduce him to the nation's power brokers, but he was dogged instead by reports that two women filed sexual harassment complaints against him in the 1990s when he headed a restaurant trade association. He's denying the allegations and pushing forward.
Wednesday is key for the Georgia businessman, a relative newcomer to national politics. Rep. Tom Graves of Georgia, who has yet to endorse a candidate, has set Cain up with meetings: a meet-and-greet at midafternoon at the off-campus National Republican Club of Capitol Hill, followed by a more intimate session with members of his home-state Georgia delegation. Also on Cain's schedule was a meeting with a big name: House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, who has hosted presidential candidates on behalf of the Republican National Committee.
There is no doubt that Romney is winning this Capitol Hill primary. Leading the charge for the former Massachusetts governor is a fellow GOP establishment stalwart, Sen. Roy Blunt, who has nearly three decades of connections from K Street lobbyists to Capitol Hill. The former House Republican whip from swing-state Missouri controls what's considered one of the best national networks of anyone in his party not running for president. Chaffetz, a young Westerner with tea party appeal, is part of Blunt and Romney's team in the House.
On Perry's side is a newcomer to the national political scene, Rep. Mick Mulvaney, who has close ties to South Carolina's political establishment from his days in the state Legislature.
Mulvaney's also a co-author of the conservatives' "cut, cap and balance" plan to rein in government spending and balance the budget. Like Chaffetz, he's a member of the Republican Study Committee, about 170 of the House's most conservative members and the most fertile ground for endorsements for Perry.
Mulvaney is not especially comfortable being called Perry's "liaison to Congress."
"I think of myself as an economic adviser," he says. "I happen to be on the Hill, so if I can help in that way, I'm happy to do that."
That means list-building, making introductions, arranging phone calls and asking what-will-it-take questions that might draw senators individually, and House members in groups, over the line. All without breaching campaign finance laws against mixing official and political business.
The delegation from South Carolina, an early primary state, is being ardently pursued.
"My constituents don't care who I endorse," says Rep. Trey Gowdy, who responded to Chaffetz' appeal on behalf of Romney with a diplomatic "Any candidate is welcome in my state."
He spent an early afternoon last week on Capitol Hill with a tough audience: more than 60 House Republicans, many of them conservative freshmen. For about 45 minutes, they grilled Romney on everything from Afghanistan, abortion, gay marriage and health care to how's he going to relate to voters who aren't wealthy.
"He was reassuring everybody," said freshman Rep. Cory Gardner of Colorado, who is undecided.
What resonated most with the freshmen? "People were really excited to hear that he is going to focus like a laser on jobs," Gardner said.
Associated Press writer Jack Gillum contributed to this report.
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