Mitt Romney
Julie Jacobson  /  AP
Mitt Romney, left, greets supporters during a phone bank fundraiser in Las Vegas on Monday.
By
updated 5/18/2011 9:59:28 AM ET 2011-05-18T13:59:28

Mitt Romney has all the trappings of a GOP presidential frontrunner except for one important thing: enthusiasm from party activists.

Romney raised a remarkable $10.25 million on Monday; Republican officials from across the nation meeting the next day in Dallas mostly shrugged. In nearly two dozen interviews at the Republican National Committee's spring meeting, no one fully embraced Romney, and several said they'd like to see other candidates enter the race.

2012 White House race: What matters, and what doesn't

"A lot of Republicans are hoping someone new pops up," said Kirby Wilbur, GOP chairman in Washington state. "He keeps having to figure out who he is," a reference to Romney's changed positions on issues including abortion and health care.

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Even top Republicans who are kinder to Romney showed only modest excitement about his positions and his prospects.

"Polls show Romney has to be considered the frontrunner now," said New Hampshire state GOP chairman Jack Kimball, whose state plans to hold the first primary in early 2012. "But you'll see others gaining ground."

Kimball said Donald Trump's short but attention-grabbing presidential overture proved that "the American people want to see passion, want to see the gloves come off." Romney and others need to learn that lesson, he said.

Video: GOP Pollster: Economic issues still reign supreme

The tepid response Romney received at the Dallas meeting was notable for several reasons.

Money, experience and no clear rivals
Romney appears far ahead of his likely rivals in two crucial areas for anyone hoping to unseat Obama: fundraising and experience. Except for longshot Ron Paul, Romney is the only person in the likely Republican field who has run for president before. He learned hard lessons in 2007-08, built an organization and endured the trial-by-fire that Republican voters traditionally have rewarded.

Video: Romney leads the race

And at this early stage of the campaign, several would-be challengers to Romney have dropped out, including Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and 2008 Iowa caucus winner Mike Huckabee.

Story: Huckabee 'says no', widens open GOP field

Finally, there is no clear alternative to Romney. RNC members offered an array of names as possible challengers, more often in hope than conviction.

Some cited former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Others said they hope Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels will jump in. A few mentioned Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman.

In two days of conversations with RNC members, almost no one mentioned former House Speaker Newt Gingrich or former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, although both have national name recognition and Gingrich is formally running.

Still, they said there's plenty of time for the presidential field to take shape and for at least one contender to catch fire. "Who that will be, I have no idea," said Wilbur, expressing a widely shared sentiment here.

'Romneycare' legacy
Romney's biggest obstacle to the nomination, many delegates said, is the health care law he enacted as Massachusetts governor five years ago.

Video: Health care record will follow Romney

"The issue he has to overcome is Romneycare, as it's called," Kimball said. He said Romney must do a better job of explaining how the Massachusetts law is substantially different from the 2010 federal health care law championed by President Barack Obama and despised by many conservatives.

Both programs require people to obtain health insurance, a key goal in trying to provide everyone with medical care and preventing insurers from refusing to cover those with existing health problems. Romney says his plan was for right for Massachusetts, but Obama's "one-size-fits-all" plan for the 50 states is wrong and intrusive. He has vowed to repeal it.

Several RNC members find the argument hard to follow.

"Health care may be his Achilles' heel," said South Carolina Republican Party chairman Chad Connelly, whose state holds its primary shortly after New Hampshire's. "He's going to have to explain that."

North Carolina GOP chairman Robin Hayes said Romney's effort to explain the differences between his health care policies and Obama's is too complex and longwinded. "He's going to have to clarify the health care bill," he said.

'Anybody-but-Romney' party
The harshest assessment of Romney in Dallas came from pollster Whit Ayres, who is aligned with Huntsman. He gave a closed-door presentation to RNC members on political messaging.

Video: Romney boxed in on health care

"There is a huge anybody-but-Romney contingent in the party," Ayres said in an interview. He said the discontent centers on the health care issue and Romney's shift from liberal to conservative positions over the years on abortion rights, gun control and gay rights.

But some of Romney's strongest supporters skipped the Dallas meeting. Massachusetts Republican national committeeman Ron Kaufman said RNC members tend to be neutral at this stage of a presidential contest, and Romney is doing well among grassroots groups that will be vital in the primary.

"I'm very comfortable with where we are," Kaufman said in a phone interview.

Perhaps most frustrating for Romney is that his remarkable one-day fundraising push didn't attract more support at a gathering of Republican leaders from all 50 states.

"People feel like he is the most qualified guy in the race at the moment," Hayes said. "But it's a long time before the green flag drops."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Explainer: The 2012 GOP presidential field

  • A look at the Republican candidates hoping to challenge Barack Obama in the general election.

  • Rick Perry, announced Aug. 13

    Image: Perry
    Sean Gardner  /  REUTERS
    Texas Gov. Rick Perry

    Mere hours before a major GOP debate in Iowa (and a couple of days before the high-interest Ames straw poll), the Perry camp announced that the Texas governor was all-in for 2012.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Texas governor.

    While some on ground in the early-caucus state criticized the distraction, strategists applauded the move and said Perry was giving Romney a run for his money.

    Slideshow: A look at Gov. Rick Perry's political career

    He may face fierce opposition from secular groups and progressives who argue that his religious rhetoric violates the separation of church and state and that his belief that some groups, such as the Boy Scouts of America, should be allowed to discriminate against gays is bigoted.

  • Jon Huntsman, announced June 21

    Image: Jon Hunt
    Mandel Ngan  /  AFP - Getty Images file
    Outgoing U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman

    Huntsman, a former governor of Utah, made his bid official on June 21 at at Liberty State Park in New Jersey.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former governor of Utah.

    He vowed to provide "leadership that knows we need more than hope" and "leadership that doesn’t promise Washington has all the solutions to our problems."

    The early days of his campaign were clouded with reports of internal discord among senior staffers.

    Slideshow: Jon Huntsman Jr.

    Huntsman, who is Mormon, worked as a missionary in Taiwan and is fluent in Mandarin. But his moderate credentials — backing civil unions for gays and the cap-and-trade energy legislation — could hurt him in a GOP primary. So could serving under Obama.

  • Michele Bachmann, announced on June 13

    Image: Michele Bachmann
    Larry Downing  /  REUTERS
    Rep. Michele Bachmann

    Born and raised in Iowa, this Tea Party favorite and Minnesota congresswoman announced during a June 13 GOP debate that she's officially in the running for the Republican nomination.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Minn. congresswoman.

    Bachmann tells The Associated Press she decided to jump into the 2012 race at this time because she believed it was "the right thing to do."

    She's been criticized for making some high-profile gaffes — among them, claiming taxpayers would be stuck with a $200 million per day tab for President Barack Obama's trip to India and identifying New Hampshire as the site of the Revolutionary War's opening shots.

    Slideshow: The political life of Michele Bachmann

    But Bachmann's proved a viable fundraiser, collecting more than $2 million in political contributions in the first 90 days of 2011 — slightly exceeding the $1.8 million Mitt Romney brought in via his PAC in the first quarter.

  • Rick Santorum, announced on June 6

    Image: Rick Santorum
    Charlie Neibergall  /  AP file
    Former Penn. Sen. Rick Santorum

    A staunch cultural conservative vehemently against abortion and gay marriage, the former Pennsylvania senator hopes to energize Republicans with a keen focus on social issues.

    He announced the launch of a presidential exploratory committee on FOX News, where he makes regular appearances. He make his run official on June 6 in Somerset, Pa., asking supporters to "Join the fight!"

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former Pennsylvania senator.

    No stranger to controversy, Santorum was condemned by a wide range of groups in 2003 for equating homosexuality with incest, pedophilia and bestiality. More recently, Santorum faced criticism when he called Obama’s support for abortion rights “almost remarkable for a black man.”

    Slideshow: Rick Santorum's political life

    Since his defeat by Democrat Robert Casey in his 2006 re-election contest — by a whopping 18 percentage points — Santorum has worked as an attorney and as a think-tank contributor.

    A February straw poll at CPAC had him in twelfth place amongst Republicans with 2 percent of the vote.

  • Mitt Romney, announced on June 2

    Image: Mitt Romney
    Paul Sancya  /  AP file
    Former Massachusetts Gov. and presidential candidate Mitt Romney

    The former Massachusetts governor and 2008 presidential candidate has spent the last three years laying the foundations for another run at the White House — building a vigorous political action committee, making regular media appearances, and penning a policy-heavy book.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former Mass. governor.

    In April, he announced, via YouTube and Twitter, that he'd formed an exploratory commitee. Romney made his run official in Stratham, N.H., on June 2.

    The former CEO of consulting firm Bain & Company and the president of the organizing committee for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Romney frequently highlights his business background as one of his main qualifications to serve as president.

    Slideshow: Mitt Romney's life in politics

    To capture the nomination, Romney will have to defend the health care overhaul he enacted during his governorship — legislation that bears similarities to the Obama-backed bill despised by many conservatives. He'll also have to overcome the perception of being a flip-flopper (like supporting abortion rights in his 1994 and 2002 bids for office, but opposing them in his '08 run).

    In the first quarter of 2011, he netted some $1.8 million through his PAC "Free and Strong America."

  • Herman Cain, announced on May 21

    Image: Herman Cain
    Brendan Smialowski  /  Getty Images file
    Talk show host Herman Cain

    Cain, an Atlanta radio host and former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, has support from some Tea Party factions.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Atlanta radio host.

    An African-American who describes himself as a “citizen’s candidate,” he was the first Republican to form a formal presidential exploratory committee. He officially entered the race in May, telling supporters, "When we wake up and they declare the presidential results, and Herman Cain is in the White House, we'll all be able to say, free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, this nation is free at last, again!"

    Prior to the release of President Obama's long-form birth certificate, Cain rehashed the birther theory, telling a Florida blogger, “I respect people that believe he should prove his citizenship ... He should prove he was born in the United States of America.”

  • Ron Paul, announced on May 13

    Image: Ron Paul
    Cliff Owen  /  AP file
    Rep. Ron Paul

    In 2008, Texas congressman Ron Paul’s libertarian rallying cry — and his opposition to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — did not fall on deaf ears. An idiosyncratic foe of the Federal Reserve and a passionate advocate for limited government, Paul mounted a presidential run that was characterized by bursts of jaw-dropping online fundraising.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Texas congressman.

    Slideshow: Ron Paul

    He officially launched his 2012 campaign in New Hampshire, saying, ""The revolution is spreading, and the momentum is building ... Our time has come."

    In the first quarter of 2011, raked in some $3 million through his various political organizations.

  • Newt Gingrich, announced on May 11

    Image: Newt Gingrich
    John M. Heller  /  Getty Images file
    Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich

    The former speaker of the House who led the 1994 “Republican Revolution,” Gingrich remains a robust presence on the GOP stage as a prolific writer and political thinker. In recent years, Barack Obama has provided a new target for the blistering critiques Gingrich famously leveled at President Bill Clinton.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former speaker of the House.

    In early May, he made his 2012 run official. "I have been humbled by all the encouragement you have given me to run," Gingrich wrote on Facebook and Twitter.

    But a month later, the campaign was practically in ruins — with his campaign manager, spokesman, senior strategists all resigning en masse. Most cited issues with the "direction" of the campaign. But Gingrich vowed to press on.

    Slideshow: Newt Gingrich

    Also at issue: Gingrich’s personal life could make winning the support of social conservatives thorny for the twice-divorced former lawmaker. In a damning interview earlier this year, Esquire quoted one of Gingrich’s former wives describing him as a hypocrite who preached the sanctity of marriage while in the midst of conducting an illicit affair.

    Additional obstacles include his recent criticism of Rep. Paul Ryan’s fiscal plan as “right-wing social engineering" and reports of a $500,000 line of credit to Tiffany’s, the luxury jewelry company.

  • Gary Johnson, announced on April 21

    Image:Gary Johnson
    Jim Cole  /  AP
    Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson

    The former New Mexico governor took a big leap in late April, not by announcing an exploratory committee, but by actually announcing his official candidacy. “I’m running for president of the United States,” he told a couple of supporters and cameramen gathered for his announcement outside the New Hampshire State Capitol.

    He's a steadfast libertarian who supports the legalization of marijuana. He vetoed more than 700 pieces of legislation during his two terms as governor.

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