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How Conservatives Learned To Love Mitt Romney

Mitt Romney greets supporters at a campaign rally Wednesday in Chesapeake, Va.
Emmanuel Dunand
AFP/Getty Images
Mitt Romney greets supporters at a campaign rally Wednesday in Chesapeake, Va.

As recently as last month, it was clear that a lot of Republicans were unhappy with their presidential nominee, Mitt Romney.

When I would ask GOP voters how they felt about Romney at campaign rallies or at their doorsteps, many made sour faces, like they were swallowing chalk. They offered their most backhanded endorsements, saying things like, "He wasn't my first choice," or, "He's who we've got."

It was clear they would vote for him, but for many it was not out of love — it was out of disdain for President Obama.

"I'm concentrating more on Paul Ryan," said Jared Willms, a Toyota Financial Services payoff clerk in Urbana, Iowa.

All of that seems suddenly to have been forgotten. The reason is both obvious and simple: Romney is looking like a winner.

His performance in Tuesday's debate may not have been as commanding as his star turn during the first presidential debate. But it was no less aggressive, and the raves he received from the first debate not only led to Romney's rise in the polls, but instilled new confidence within the GOP fold.

"Now that he has stood toe to toe with Obama, it has increased enthusiasm among the grass roots, who thought, 'I didn't think he had it in him,' " says Gary Bauer, a prominent social conservative.

Bauer notes that Romney is suddenly attracting crowds — 12,000 last week in Cleveland, 8,000 in suburban Virginia on Wednesday — the size of which would have been inconceivable for him two or three weeks ago.

Political rallies always get bigger as Election Day approaches. Certainly any candidate rising in the polls can expect to be greeted with more enthusiasm.

It matters, though, that Romney's big moment came during direct debate with Obama.

He might have headed into the fall with a bounce in the polls from a stronger convention speech. A couple of worse jobs reports would have helped him narrow the gap as well.

But his ability to shine going mano a mano against a president some of the Republican faithful find "absolutely disgusting" — to quote another Iowa voter — has proved emotionally fulfilling for partisans.

"Conservatives looked at this and said, 'He wants this thing and he's going to fight for it and he took the wood to the guy,' " says David Carney, who served as a strategist for Texas Gov. Rick Perry's presidential campaign.

Remember that the question of who would be most likely to take Obama to the woodshed during the fall debates was itself a hot topic during the GOP primary season earlier this year.

"I am the one candidate who can clearly defeat Obama in a series of debates," Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker and erstwhile Romney rival, said on CNN back in January.

Romney struggled for weeks to win any state by more than a plurality against Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who were considered second-tier challengers but also more reliably conservative.

"I think what a lot of grass-roots people saw in candidates like Santorum and [Minnesota Rep. Michele] Bachmann and Gingrich and others was a sense that if one of them was the nominee, you wouldn't have to worry about sitting in your living room and watching the debates," says Bauer, who is the president of Campaign for Working Families, a conservative political action committee.

Romney's debate performances might have looked like the fulfillment of the worst fears conservatives had about him. He pivoted to the center and softened his stances on issues such as health care and tax policy, just to name two. He has bragged about nothing so much recently as the bipartisan accords he reached with Democrats during his days as Massachusetts governor.

Instead — reassured that Romney's pick of Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate signals that he will also assemble a conservative team in his Cabinet and the Supreme Court — die-hard Republicans have become willing to give Romney not just the benefit of the doubt but their firm support.

"It doesn't have anything to do with moving to the center — it's, 'We can be behind a winner,' " says Henry Olsen, vice president of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.

"For the first time in months, they really get the feeling their guy can win," Olsen says. "There's a willingness to overlook some inconsistencies."

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Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.
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