DALLAS (AP) — Mitt Romney has all the trappings of a GOP presidential front-runner except for one important thing: enthusiasm from party activists.
Romney raised a remarkable $10.25 million on Monday; Republican officials from across the nation meeting the next day in Dallas mostly shrugged. In nearly two dozen interviews at the Republican National Committee's spring meeting, no one fully embraced Romney, and several said they'd like to see other candidates enter the race.
"A lot of Republicans are hoping someone new pops up," said Kirby Wilbur, GOP chairman in Washington state. "He keeps having to figure out who he is," a reference to Romney's changed positions on issues including abortion and health care.
Even top Republicans who are kinder to Romney showed only modest excitement about his positions and his prospects.
"Polls show Romney has to be considered the front-runner now," said New Hampshire state GOP chairman Jack Kimball, whose state plans to hold the first primary in early 2012. "But you'll see others gaining ground."
Kimball said Donald Trump's short but attention-grabbing presidential overture proved that "the American people want to see passion, want to see the gloves come off." Romney and others need to learn that lesson, he said.
The tepid response Romney received at the Dallas meeting was notable for several reasons.
Romney appears far ahead of his likely rivals in two crucial areas for anyone hoping to unseat Obama: fundraising and experience. Except for longshot Ron Paul, Romney is the only person in the likely Republican field who has run for president before. He learned hard lessons in 2007-08, built an organization and endured the trial-by-fire that Republican voters traditionally have rewarded.
And at this early stage of the campaign, several would-be challengers to Romney have dropped out, including Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and 2008 Iowa caucus winner Mike Huckabee.
Finally, there is no clear alternative to Romney. RNC members offered an array of names as possible challengers, more often in hope than conviction.
Some cited former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Others said they hope Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels will jump in. A few mentioned Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman.
In two days of conversations with RNC members, almost no one mentioned former House Speaker Newt Gingrich or former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, although both have national name recognition and Gingrich is formally running.
Still, they said there's plenty of time for the presidential field to take shape and for at least one contender to catch fire. "Who that will be, I have no idea," said Wilbur, expressing a widely shared sentiment here.
Romney's biggest obstacle to the nomination, many delegates said, is the health care law he enacted as Massachusetts governor five years ago.
"The issue he has to overcome is Romneycare, as it's called," Kimball said. He said Romney must do a better job of explaining how the Massachusetts law is substantially different from the 2010 federal health care law championed by President Barack Obama and despised by many conservatives.
Both programs require people to obtain health insurance, a key goal in trying to provide everyone with medical care and preventing insurers from refusing to cover those with existing health problems. Romney says his plan was for right for Massachusetts, but Obama's "one-size-fits-all" plan for the 50 states is wrong and intrusive. He has vowed to repeal it.
Several RNC members find the argument hard to follow.
"Health care may be his Achilles' heel," said South Carolina Republican Party chairman Chad Connelly, whose state holds its primary shortly after New Hampshire's. "He's going to have to explain that."
North Carolina GOP chairman Robin Hayes said Romney's effort to explain the differences between his health care policies and Obama's is too complex and longwinded. "He's going to have to clarify the health care bill," he said.
The harshest assessment of Romney in Dallas came from pollster Whit Ayres, who is aligned with Huntsman. He gave a closed-door presentation to RNC members on political messaging.
"There is a huge anybody-but-Romney contingent in the party," Ayres said in an interview. He said the discontent centers on the health care issue and Romney's shift from liberal to conservative positions over the years on abortion rights, gun control and gay rights.
Romney is taking a low-key approach for now, and some of his strongest supporters skipped the Dallas meeting. Massachusetts Republican national committeeman Ron Kaufman said RNC members tend to be neutral at this stage of a presidential contest, and Romney is doing well among grassroots groups that will be vital in the primary.
"I'm very comfortable with where we are," Kaufman said in a phone interview.
In his cautious approach, Romney has agreed to few joint appearances with other candidates. He prefers writing newspaper op-eds over holding news conferences. It's the approach generally taken by candidates who feel they are doing well for now and see no need to put big targets on their backs.
But some Romney supporters will wonder why his remarkable one-day fundraising push didn't attract more support at a gathering of Republican leaders from all 50 states.
"People feel like he is the most qualified guy in the race at the moment," Hayes said. "But it's a long time before the green flag drops."
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