Mitt Romney is the Republican Party’s best bet against President Barack Obama.
Polls show he does best in head-to-head matchups against Obama, he has the most organized campaign team among Republican candidates, and he is easily winning the money primary by outraising all of his potential foes.
And if that were not enough, his top rivals over the last three months — Tim Pawlenty, Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry — have either flamed out or are on the brink.
Yet when Romney hits Sarasota on Monday for a private fundraiser just one month before Florida starts mailing out its first ballots, he will do so still struggling to put away a nomination that most political experts think he will eventually secure.
“This is Mitt Romney’s nomination to lose now,” said Ford O’Connell, a former presidential campaign adviser and a Republican. “He needs to close the door as soon as possible to keep the anti-Mitt vote from consolidating behind one of the other candidates.”
But conservatives continue to kick the tires on just about anyone else in the field. Even as the options dwindle, many still have refused to sign on with Romney.
“Mitt Romney just is not a true conservative,” said Lakewood Ranch Republican Craig Trigueiro, who a month ago wore a Rick Perry sticker on his lapel, then switched his support to Cain before sexual harassment charges against the candidate surfaced.
Even as those two candidates have run into new problems, Trigueiro is not ready to throw his support to Romney, weighing Newt Gingrich instead.
“I’m like a lot of conservatives,” he said. “If Mitt Romney is our nominee I will work hard to get him elected because we need to beat Obama. But I’d like to see someone else. Someone who is a true conservative. Someone who means what he says and says what he means.”
That sentiment ripples through the conservative ranks of the GOP, said O’Connell. The smart money is on Romney, but conservatives and Tea Party Republicans are still resisting because of Romney’s past positions on health care and a perceived shift on core issues such as abortion, climate change and immigration.
“For a lot of them, they have 2008 in the back of their minds,” O’Connell said. “Back then they went with John McCain because the establishment told them he was the most electable.”
McCain lost, and now conservatives are vowing not to go along with nominating a candidate just because they are told he or she is the best to bet to win next November.
Despite his opponents’ seemingly obvious flaws, Romney cannot seem to shake them — no matter how smooth his answers in debates or how well-researched his policy papers appear.
“In a lot of ways Romney has been trying to be the perfect candidate,” O’Connell said. “Those voters don’t care if you are perfect; they just want to see if you have some convictions.”
The image issue has dogged Romney for months. Even among his supporters, there is a perception he has repositioned himself since his days as Massachusetts’ governor on key issues. The perception is enhanced by influential conservatives such as Redstate.com founder Erick Erickson, who is pushing an anybody-but-Mitt campaign.
“There is no issue I can find on which Mitt Romney has not taken both sides,” Erickson wrote on one of the most well-read Republican blogs on the Web. “He is neither liberal nor conservative. He is simply unprincipled. The man has no core beliefs other than in himself.”
Between now and when Iowa votes on Jan. 3, Romney has to demonstrate conviction on some issues to make conservatives come on board, O’Connell said.
Iowa is critical for Romney. With the rest of the field in disarray, Romney has a chance to finish near the top there. If he does, and wins as expected in New Hampshire, Romney will be headed for Florida’s Jan. 31 primary with the money and momentum to clinch.
But if Romney struggles in Iowa with the conservatives, he could head to Florida in a must-win position, in a close race that could quickly become a protracted and expensive slog, O’Connell said.
Financially, that is a worst-case scenario for Romney. Already he has amassed $32 million for his campaign — nearly double that of his closest rival, Perry. But looming on the horizon is Obama, who awaits with $86 million in his re-election fund.
The pressure to raise money is driving Romney to spend Monday and part of Tuesday in Florida.
According to a poll released last week by the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, Romney would fare best against Obama. The poll of likely general election voters in key swing states like Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio, shows that Romney does better against Obama than any of the other challengers, said Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.
In Florida, Romney beats Obama 45 percent to 42 percent. No other candidate in the field leads Obama in Florida.