WASHINGTON — If Mitt Romney needs some good news in an otherwise lousy week, he might find it in an improbable place: the packed hallways of the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington.
Interviews with nearly two dozen attendees Thursday found virtually no passion for the former Massachusetts governor, widely seen as insufficiently conservative for activists on the right. Not a single person, however, said he or she would not support Romney if he seems best-positioned to beat President Barack Obama in November.
“Whoever is against Obama, I will vote for that person, no matter what,” said Carol Kitson, 57, of Houston.
Kevin Daley, a freshman at Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y., spoke for numerous people who said they feel little affection for Romney but a deep antipathy for Obama.
“Romney does not clearly articulate a conservative message,” said Daley, 19. “But I will enthusiastically support him” if he’s the nominee.
One day of hallway interviews is no scientific survey. And there certainly are people at CPAC who can’t accept Romney.
But the comments Thursday were remarkably similar. If they represent widespread views, they raise doubts about the much-discussed notion that Romney cannot rally conservative activists this fall if he’s the Republican presidential nominee.
Romney’s GOP rivals, especially Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, are making that argument in hopes of overcoming Romney’s edge in money and organization. Fueling their claim is Romney’s surprisingly weak showing in Tuesday’s caucuses in Colorado and Minnesota, which Santorum won.
But the CPAC interviews found little buzz about Colorado or Minnesota. Conservatives’ paramount goal is to deny Obama a second term. And they believe the top issue will be the economy, an issue that plays to businessman Romney’s strengths.
Even though several people said they like Santorum somewhat more than Romney, almost no one placed that question above electability, where many felt Romney has the edge.
Emily Barton, a freshman at George Mason University in northern Virginia, said she “fell in line and I’ll support Romney,” even though she wishes he were more conservative. “I think his business sense is what we need to fix the economy,” said Barton, 18, whose home is in New Jersey.
When Anita Clos, a retiree from Savannah, Ga., was asked about her top concern for the country, she said: “My concern is to defeat Obama. I will support anyone who becomes the nominee.”
Clos, who has attended the annual CPAC meeting for years, said Republicans need “an engaging” nominee. She fears Romney lacks that quality. But he’s the best of the remaining contenders, she said.
Santorum “is too conservative for me,” Clos said. “Newt Gingrich is engaging,” she said, “but I think he has too much baggage,” especially for female voters who are put off by his “multiple marriages and infidelities.”
Several people cited Gingrich’s “baggage.” It suggested that political attack ads and campaign criticisms of the former House speaker have taken a toll.
Pam Joyce, 59, of Houston, said she ruled out Gingrich because “he sat on Nancy Pelosi’s couch and said he believes in man-made global warming. Romney said the same thing.”
“I’m not real happy with Romney,” Joyce said. “I don’t think he’s conservative enough.” She said she likes Santorum, and thinks he has a shot at winning the nomination.
But if Romney prevails, Joyce said, she will be compelled to back him “because I can’t support this president who’s trampling on the Constitution.”
Nick Roch, a freshman at Roanoke College in Virginia, was the only person among those interviewed who expressed outright enthusiasm for Romney.
“I’m a big Mitt Romney fan,” said Roch, who was impressed by the former governor’s CPAC speech last year. Roch stood out Thursday in another way. He described himself as a moderate conservative, a term rarely heard at a convention that draws crowds of GOP officials, radio personalities, advocacy groups and political vendors.
Romney, Gingrich and Santorum are scheduled to speak at the CPAC gathering Friday. Rep. Ron Paul, also in the GOP race, does not plan to speak.
Scott and Donna Olson, who own a small business in the Milwaukee suburbs and were making their first trip to CPAC, said their dislike of Obama outweighs their feelings, pro or con, for the GOP contenders. Scott Olson, 59, said he wishes there were other candidates, but any of those still running would be an improvement.
“Obama doesn’t care about what Congress wants, he doesn’t care about what the people want,” Olson said. “It’s like he wants to be a king.”
Donna Olson said she fears Romney would be “a compromiser,” but she would have no qualms about backing him if he’s the party’s choice.
“No one who wants to get rid of the Obama agenda will sit out the election because Romney’s the nominee,” she said.
Bill Ouren, 59, another Houston Republican, summed up the day’s theme.
“I’m not particularly excited about any of the candidates,” said Ouren, who is retired from the oil and gas industry. “I don’t think we have a true conservative.”
He supported Michele Bachmann and then Herman Cain before they dropped out. No matter who prevails, however, Ouren said conservatives will rally to that person’s side, even if the motivating factors are more anti-Obama than pro-GOP.
“The enthusiasm against what has happened in the past four years,” he said, “will overpower anything else.”