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Before Super Tuesday, Big Names Rally to Romney

A reluctant Republican Party is increasingly showing signs of rallying around Mitt Romney in the presidential race, with leading members of Congress and influential conservatives signaling that a coast-to-coast burst of voting on Super Tuesday should mark a moment to start concentrating on defeating President Obama.

Mitt Romney
Richard Ellis | Getty Images
Mitt Romney

Two leading fiscal conservatives declared their loyalties for the first time on Sunday, with one, Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the majority leader, saying, “Mitt Romney is the man for this year.” The other, Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, described Mr. Romney as “best equipped to solve the urgent problems before us.”

John Ashcroft, the former Missouri governor and senator who served as attorney general under President George W. Bush, is poised to join Mr. Romney’s team on Monday.

The endorsements come as the Romney campaign is pressing elected officials and activists in the 10 states that are voting Tuesday and those that do so in the following weeks to help nudge the contest toward a conclusion. A methodical effort is under way among governors, donors and top Republicans to make the case that a long nominating fight could weaken the party’s chances to win the White House, maintain control of the House and gain a majority in the Senate.

Campaign advisers said they were lining up supporters from across the Republican ranks to add their voices to an effort to begin trying to wind down the race.

“Over the next several days, you are likely to see more Republicans come forward,” Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, a Romney supporter, said in an interview Sunday. “Timing-wise, it’s gotten to the point that people are looking to coalesce around one candidate and take the fight to the Democrats.”

The contests on Super Tuesday, which is the biggest day of voting so far in the primary season, will award more than 400 delegates and indicate to establishment Republicans whether the race is nearing a finale or will be mired in acrimony for months.

It is a significant moment for Mr. Romney, but also a critical one for Rick Santorum, who is scrapping for delegates but also trying to win the popular vote in Ohio to revive doubts about Mr. Romney’s appeal among conservative and working-class voters. Newt Gingrich is also fighting to stay in the race, staking the future of his candidacy on a victory in Georgia on Tuesday.

Here in Ohio, where voters have developed a well-earned reputation as a bellwether that captures national political sentiments, the primary will help determine the length of the presidential race and the direction of the Republican Party. The state could also provide one of the best opportunities for Mr. Santorum to slow Mr. Romney’s march to the nomination.

The two men are locked in a tight race here, according to an NBC News/Marist poll released on Sunday, which found Mr. Santorum with a two-point edge over Mr. Romney that was within the survey’s margin of sampling error. Mr. Santorum, who is relying on grass-roots activists in the state, dismissed the endorsements collected by his rival.

“We’re running the insurgent campaign,” Mr. Santorum said. “He’s running the insider campaign.”

Social conservative activists around Ohiowere busy posting Santorum lawn signs, making phone calls and promoting his candidacy at church services across the state in a last volley of activity on Sunday, pleading for neighbors not to take orders from party leaders who are urging rank-and-file voters to fall in behind Mr. Romney.

“When the party itself says, ‘We all need to come together to support a particular candidate,’ I think that’s wrong,” said John McAvoy, an organizer for a group called the Children of Liberty, speaking as he posted Santorum yard signs in the northwest Ohio town of Luckey.

The Romney campaign is calibrating its moves gingerly, trying not to alienate Republican voters who will be needed in the fall if Mr. Romney is the party’s nominee. The argument that he is the most electable against Mr. Obama resonates with some Republican primary voters, but not all.

“I know it’s hard for them, but it’s settling in with a lot of people that our only chance of beating President Obama is with Romney,” said George V. Voinovich, the former senator from Ohio, who has been recording radio ads for Mr. Romney.

The Republican candidates fanned out across several Southern states on Sunday. As Mr. Romney visited Georgia, he told voters about his new endorsements. His words were laced with implicit criticisms of his rivals.

“The economy is what I do, it’s what I know, it’s what I’ve done,” Mr. Romney told a crowd at a pancake breakfast in Snellville, Ga. “I haven’t just read about it, I haven’t just debated about it, I haven’t just talked about it on subcommittees. I’ve actually done it.”

The fourth candidate still in the race, Representative Ron Paul of Texas, made a weekend trip to Alaska, which is holding its caucuses Tuesday. In a television interview, Mr. Paul conceded that he was unlikely to win the nomination, saying: “Do I believe the chances are slim? Yes, I do.”

As the Romney campaign re-emphasized its commitment to the process of picking up delegates state by state, week by week, the candidate’s aides were facing the unforgiving realities of symbolism in presidential politics, especially in terms of feeding “momentum” — or taking it away.

Even with the new signs of support for Mr. Romney, there are significant hurdles to capturing the 1,144 delegates needed to win the nomination. A loss to Mr. Santorum in Ohio would blunt Mr. Romney’s latest attempt to portray himself as the inexorable nominee.

Likewise, a failure to compete strongly in Tennessee or Georgia would likely reinforce questions about Mr. Romney’s strength in the South. Neither Mr. Santorum nor Mr. Gingrich qualified for the ballot in Virginia, negating its potential as a Southern proving ground.

But winning Ohio and one of those Southern states would give Mr. Romney a major lift as he seeks to finally solidify his front-runner status. His advisers sought to play down the importance of outright victories in the South, or, for that matter, any single state.

“I don’t know if we can win in Georgia or Tennessee,” Eric Fehrnstrom, a senior adviser to Mr. Romney, told reporters Sunday. “But I know we can take delegates out of there and this is a delegate contest now.”

It was no coincidence that Mr. Fehrnstrom was speaking aboard a campaign plane bound for Atlanta from Cincinnati and destined for Knoxville, Tenn. Though polls show Mr. Gingrich well ahead in Georgia, a state that he represented for two decades in Congress, Mr. Romney’s team was seeking to take a large portion of the state’s 76 delegates.

For his part, Mr. Santorum conceded that it was difficult to challenge Mr. Romney with Mr. Gingrich still in the race drawing some conservative voters. But on Sunday as he visited Corky’s, a venerable barbecue house in Memphis, he predicted the Republican contest would ultimately become a “two-man race.”

“We’re doing as well as anybody,” Mr. Santorum said before setting off for rallies in Oklahoma. “In all of the races, we’re either first or second, and that’s going to make a good Super Tuesday for us.”

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