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Romney struggles to win Republican enthusiasm

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney speaks during the Republican Party of Florida presidential candidates debate in Orlando
Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney speaks during the Republican Party of Florida presidential candidates debate in Orlando

By John Whitesides

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Mitt Romney could be the presidential candidate with it all -- money, organization, experience -- except the thing he wants most.

The love and enthusiasm of his fellow Republicans.

Romney, the button-down establishment man, has never inspired the passion that drives many political campaigns, and those on the party's right wing question the sincerity of his conservative views.

While his rivals in the Republican race yo-yo up and down in the polls, Romney glides along near the top of the pack. As candidates with more political sex appeal fade, Romney is in a strong position to be the last man standing.

Whether that will be good enough for Republicans will become clear early next year, when the party starts to vote for its nominee to challenge President Barack Obama in 2012.

"Romney's biggest challenge has always been to get Republicans to vote with their head and not their heart," said Republican Dan Schnur, an aide on Senator John McCain's 2000 presidential bid.

"You don't need to see fireworks or hear violins to pick a candidate. You just need somebody who can win," he said.

Romney, the early front-runner in the Republican nominating race after a failed 2008 bid, saw Texas Governor Rick Perry shoot past him in polls after he joined the race last month.

Romney regained the lead in a Fox News poll this week, and his strong appeal to moderates and independents helps him consistently score better than Perry and other Republicans in hypothetical matchups against President Barack Obama.

Romney's viability in a general election race against Obama is one of his biggest strengths in a year when Republicans are desperate to kick the first-term Democrat out of the White House.

But social conservatives and Tea Party activists who play a big role in the nominating process have long been suspicious of the former governor of liberal Massachusetts, where Romney backed a healthcare plan similar to Obama's national overhaul.

"We know who Romney is and we know who he's trying to be. We've seen it and we don't need it," said Ryan Rhodes, chairman of the Iowa Tea Party. "We need somebody who is going to be a consistent conservative. That is not Romney, and I don't see that as something that people are changing on."

'A MANAGER'

Rhodes said he did not buy the argument that Romney would give Republicans the best chance of defeating Obama in 2012.

"Obama is beatable by somebody with a consistent conservative message, not someone who will get in the general election and capitulate," he said. "Romney is just a manager. He'll manage an out-of-control system better than Barack Obama will, but he does not share our belief in limited government."

It is also still unclear whether Romney's Mormon religion would be a negative in a general election race. Romney would be the first Mormon president.

Despite his potential problems, Romney has clear advantages in the Republican race. He has been planning this run since a failed 2008 presidential bid against eventual nominee McCain, giving him a huge head start in organization.

Romney, the millionaire former head of a private equity firm, also has an established fund-raising network that so far has helped him crush his Republican rivals in the money chase.

As of June 30, the last deadline for filing figures, Romney had raised $18 million. The deadline for third-quarter fund- raising was Friday, and Perry's ability to keep pace with Romney will be closely watched.

Romney's smooth debate style and seasoned campaign-trail experience make him a safer bet to avoid the setbacks that have hit newcomers like Perry and U.S. Representative Michele Bachmann.

But Romney's steady performance in the race -- he has ranged between 16 percent and 24 percent in every poll since the beginning of September -- could be either a sign of stable support or an indicator he is not capable of expanding his base.

"His supporters aren't necessarily enthusiastic but he may not need that," said Karlyn Bowman, a poll analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. "He has not lost ground like the other candidates, and that suggests Republicans still find him acceptable."

Without enthusiasm from supporters during a long campaign, however, money and organization might not be enough.

"He has a superior advantage in organization and fund-raising, but a lot of people just don't trust him," said Republican strategist Ford O'Connell. "A lot of people feel like they just don't know him."

(Editing by Alistair Bell and Peter Cooney)

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