WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Roy Blunt approached a fellow Republican on the U.S. Senate floor a few weeks back and made a pitch for Mitt Romney, their party’s presidential front-runner, who is pushing to nail down the elusive Republican nomination.
Blunt got a lukewarm response that has become all too familiar as he works as Romney’s hand-picked recruiter in Congress, trying to drum up enthusiasm from Republicans cautiously assessing the presidential contest.
“Roy told me why he thought Romney would be a great president,” Senator Jeff Sessions said in recalling the exchange. “We talked about my belief that we need a strong manager. ... Roy asked me to consider endorsing Romney. I told him I would think about it.”
On Thursday, the soft-spoken Blunt, 62, is gathering members who have endorsed Romney for a breakfast fundraiser, figuring the money will swell the candidate’s campaign war chest and the financial commitment will bolster lawmakers’ enthusiasm.
With 289 Republicans in Congress, Romney now has 88 endorsements, compared to 11 for Newt Gingrich and six for Rick Santorum, his chief rivals, according to Roll Call, a Capitol Hill publication.
“You are more committed to things that you give money to - whether it is a church or a politician,” Blunt said. “It’ll get members who are supporting Romney much more engaged.”
Romney’s endorsements have remained relatively steady in recent weeks, even as the candidate gains momentum with a string of primary victories.
As recruiter, Blunt faces an ambivalence that has dogged Romney in the campaign. Despite a desire to unseat President Barack Obama, many conservatives are unenthusiastic about Romney as the party’s likely nominee.
And even as Romney accumulates convention delegates through primary victories, Republicans are braced for a contentious party convention in August. The prospect of a conservative revolt has contributed to a cautious approach among lawmakers, many of whom face their own re-election battles in November.
“There’s an acceptance Romney will be our nominee, but there’s a lot of concern,” said an aide to a leading conservative in Congress. “He seems disconnected from every-day Americans and hasn’t crystallized who he is and what conservative positions he would really advance.”
Blunt, who played a similar recruiting role during the 2000 George W. Bush campaign, rejects such talk.
“Romney knows the economy and that will be the top issue” in the November 6 election, Blunt told Reuters. “I know Romney well enough to say he’s a serious conservative and very smart. There’s no doubt in my mind he can stand up to Obama.”
Blunt and Romney are a bit of a political odd couple. Their friendship traces to Blunt’s son, Matt, who was governor of Missouri while Romney was governor of Massachusetts. The younger Blunt co-chaired Romney’s 2008 White House bid.
On the campaign trail, Romney often rips into Washington, but his ally has been a Washington fixture for 15 years. Elected to the Senate in 2010, after 14 years in the House, Blunt in December was elected vice chair of the Senate Republican Conference.
The race pitted the party’s old guard against its generally younger and anti-Washington Tea Party wing. Blunt won by a single vote, party sources say.
But Blunt used the victory to forge alliances. He visited a number of senators who opposed him, a party aide said. “He told my boss, ‘You didn’t vote for me. But I want to work with you.'”
Blunt is a fiscal and social conservative who recently led the failed Senate charge against Obama’s new rule on insurance coverage for contraceptives.
Romney publicly opposed the measure, but then said he backed it, explaining he had been confused by a reporter’s question. The flip-flop drew partisan fire and ridicule.
Blunt stood by him.
Former Republican Senator Jim Talent, a senior adviser in the Romney campaign, believes Romney chose well in September when he tapped Blunt to help him.
“If you were to sketch out the kind of person you’d want in this job you would end up with Roy Blunt,” Talent said. “He has the skills. He knows a broad section of people in the House and Senate. He can interact with people. He knows how to listen.”
Endorsers provide a candidate with more than their stamp of approval. They can also help in practical ways, with donor lists and phone banks, for example.
Senator Rob Portman helped Romney win the primary in his home state of Ohio. But Senator Thad Cochran failed to help Romney carry Mississippi.
Even among Republicans who endorse Romney, Blunt may have problems getting them to enthusiastically campaign.
“A lot of our members just aren’t happy with Romney and I don’t know if they ever will be,” another Republican aide said. “He doesn’t seem to have the skill to go one-on-one with Obama.”
Romney has a particular problem with the Tea Party movement, which helped Republicans increase their clout in the 2010 election and, in the process, pushed the party toward the uncompromising right.
None of the four members of the Senate Tea Party Caucus have endorsed Romney, while just nine in the 60-member House Tea Party Caucus have publicly embraced him.
“I like Mitt even though I don’t agree with everything he’s done,” said Republican Senator Mike Lee, an uncommitted Tea Party favorite. “I think he’s going to be our nominee and that conservatives will get behind him. They’d be crazy not to.”
Another Tea Partier, freshman Senator Ron Johnson, said Blunt has not sought his support yet. He plans to endorse the party’s eventual nominee and push to cut spending and reduce deficit, core Tea Party beliefs.
“I will tell folks on the right flank that I will hold any president accountable,” Johnson said.
Most Republican leaders have declined to endorse. But House Majority Leader Eric Cantor recently backed Romney. John Thune, head of the Senate Republican Conference and a potential vice presidential prospect, backed Romney last year.
Blunt, whose role gives him access to the candidate just about any time he wants, said he has offered advice. “I’ve told him he needs to get to know members of Congress and build relations with them - the kind of relations he will need if he is elected president,” Blunt said.
If Romney becomes president, Blunt’s stature is sure to rise. “Roy Blunt is a rising star in Republican leadership,” an aide said. “He knows how the game is played. He knows how to build coalitions.”
His soft touch has served him well in the quest for Romney support.
“What I like about Roy is that he’s thoughtful and serious person,” said Sessions, a three-term senator from Alabama, a state recently won by Santorum. “Roy knows he can’t twist my arm, and didn’t try.”
Reporting By Thomas Ferraro; editing by Todd Eastham