Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney holds a rally in Pensacola, Fla., in January.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney holds a rally in Pensacola, Fla., in January. Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images
Now that former candidates Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum are endorsing Mitt Romney to be the Republican nominee for president, the GOP is working to get the rank and file to fall in line.
That's especially important in swing states like Florida. But in the primary, Romney struggled in the Panhandle of the Sunshine State — a bastion of conservative voters. And it might take more convincing for them to really get behind the former Massachusetts governor.
Back in January, the day before the Florida primary, retired schoolteacher Jane Hayes was dressed in red, white and blue at a Pensacola rally for Gingrich. She said at the time that she could not support Romney.
"Republicans that are conservative need to get the message to the establishment that — don't give us weak candidates," she said then. "You gave us [John] McCain and he was weak; you gave us [Bob] Dole and he was weak; you gave us Romney and he's weak; and somewhere along the line we have to stop and say, 'No more.' "
Now that Romney is the presumptive nominee, Hayes is torn.
"I don't know if I'm going to vote for him yet. I may be one of those that leaves it blank," she says at her home on a golf course in Santa Rosa County, Fla.
Hayes is not as pessimistic as she once was, and she seems to be looking for something to like about Romney.
"He was probably really a good governor for a liberal Northeastern state. I think he's a good family man," she says. "He has a lot in his background that would make him a good president, except he doesn't have the experience of being conservative."
'Not My First Choice'
Romney needs a strong turnout from conservatives like Hayes in the Florida Panhandle, where the politics are more akin to neighboring Georgia and Alabama than the rest of Florida.
More than 100 people turned out last week for a National Prayer Day service on the front lawn of the Santa Rosa County courthouse.
"We have a responsibility if we want to keep God as Lord in America to go to the polls and do that dirty word: vote," said speaker Frank Lay, a retired principal.
Lay says he will be voting for Romney, if not enthusiastically. "There was some stronger candidates, if you will," Lay says. "He wasn't mine. But he is now."
It's a common sentiment.
"Well, he was not my first choice," says Chrys Holley, 82. She voted for Santorum in the primary, but she says she will support Romney now and hope for the best. "He professes to be a Christian, and Christians are supposed to put God first no matter what."
Romney's Mormon faith has been a sticking point for some evangelical voters, but Holley says not for her.
Not for Lonnie Hawkins, either. He's an accountant in the Pensacola public defenders' office. Hawkins still prefers Gingrich, but he says he has no choice but to vote for Romney. He believes, incorrectly, that President Obama is Muslim.
"Would you prefer a Mormon or a Muslim?" he says. "You've got two M's to choose from."
Hawkins says the specter of another Obama administration should pull reluctant conservatives behind Romney.
Striking A Balance
Kay Addison, chairwoman of the Santa Rosa County Republican Executive Committee, says that in 2008, voters here were also slow to warm up to McCain, who lost Florida.
"People said, 'I don't like McCain. I'm not going to vote.' So I've been telling everybody, 'If you don't vote, it's like a vote for Obama.' "
The party plans to target registered Republicans who didn't vote in the last election. But Addison says Romney will have to do his part, too.
"He's going to have to come up here to the Panhandle some because so often we're like taken for granted — because, 'Oh, well, they're Republicans. They're going to vote for a Republican.' But they do need to let us know that they care if we vote or not," Addison says.
Republican strategist Scott Miller of Pensacola says that could be tricky for a candidate who has to appeal to the whole state.
"He has to be careful and balance his conservative pitch," Miller says. "And not so overcommit his conservative pitch — which is what's going to attract the North Florida voters" — that he alienates South Florida voters.
Romney also needs to be authentic, Miller says, and not try too hard to connect, like he did in the Alabama and Mississippi primaries, both states where he finished in third place behind Santorum and Gingrich.
"He doesn't have to come eat grits, but it's nice to come and have a glass of iced tea," Miller says.
And as he sips, Miller says, Romney needs to show he understands the conservative values that drive so many voters in the Florida Panhandle.