Mitt Romney on Friday all but seized control of the Republican Party, rallying party leaders from around the country with a vow to draft every one of his many rivals into waging the campaign against President Barack Obama and the Democrats.
Meeting at a desert resort in Scottsdale, most party officials were careful not to declare the former Massachusetts governor as their nominee, since he’s still short of the delegates needed to clinch the nomination and still has two nominal rival candidates _ Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul _ waging symbolic challenges.
But the party leaders gave Romney a hero’s welcome and, with 2008 nominee John McCain there to salute him, he treated his appearance as a passing of the baton. He was the only candidate who appeared at the gathering.
“Now the great work begins,” said Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, who presided over the three-day meeting of state party leaders and state-based members of the Republican National Committee.
“We want to welcome you in a formal way to a great family here that is willing and looks forward to working beyond anyone’s imagination in making sure that we put a Republican back in the White House,” Priebus said.
McCain, the Arizona senator who had endorsed Romney earlier during the contested primaries, heralded him as the new champion of the party heading into the 2012 election.
“I am so gratified to see our party coming together on a solid team that is going to elect him,” McCain said. “I am most proud to have Mitt as our standard-bearer.”
Romney, who also campaigned Friday in Arizona for Hispanic votes, saluted “the people who had the courage to run for president on our side of the aisle this year, some still running.” He listed them by name: Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, former Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, former Gov. Jon Huntsman of Utah, former business executive Herman Cain, Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, Rep. Paul of Texas, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and former House Speaker Gingrich.
“Each is going to play a vital role in making sure that we win in November,” Romney said, though not all have yet endorsed him.
The state-based party officials appeared eager to close ranks behind Romney, especially now that Santorum has dropped the last serious challenge.
“It’s best that Santorum got out before this meeting. Things are going to coalesce now,” said George Schiavone, a member of the Republican National Committee from Vermont.
Still, Romney cannot take conservatives for granted.
“Conservatives are starting to move his way,” said Glen McCall, a member of the Republican National Committee from South Carolina, a state that Romney lost to Gingrich in the primary.
“The running mate will be key,” added McCall, who’s also the party chairman in York County, S.C. “Sarah Palin really galvanized the conservative vote for McCain. Gov. Romney’s going to have to get someone to bring in this big base of conservatives.”