WASHINGTON - Conservatives at the core of the Republican Party are coalescing behind likely GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney faster than expected after a punishing primary season in which they loudly sought someone else - almost anybody else - to carry the fight to President Barack Obama.
They're opposed to Obama more than they like, trust or accept Romney as the party's standard-bearer. And they recognize that the former Massachusetts governor is their only real choice.
"I'm going (to support him) because it's my responsibility and, frankly, almost anything is going to be better than Obama," said Steve Troxel, chairman of the Lynchburg Republican Party in swing-state Virginia.
According to Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., "There are some conservatives who are not ready to trust Mr. Romney to do the right thing, but they all trust President Obama to do the wrong thing."
"Right now," Family Research Council President Tony Perkins said of the shift, "Obama is driving it."
In interview after interview over the past week, conservative activists say that they know the election will be close - and that Romney needs them to do more than merely lay down their vitriol over his wobbles on abortion, government spending, health care and gay marriage. He needs them to campaign for him, to contribute to him, to get themselves and their friends to the polls Nov. 6 and to cast votes for him, not just against Obama.
Many conservatives clearly are not there yet, but the GOP base is undeniably shifting toward Romney, helped along by post-primary developments that could escalate in the Republicans' favor this summer.
The troubling economic report that showed slower-than-expected job growth injected some urgency into the coalescence, conservative leaders said. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's survival of a recall vote buoyed the spirits of this core constituency. Next week, a Republican could win Democratic Rep. Gabriel Giffords' House seat in Arizona's special election. The Supreme Court could overturn Obama's health care law this month. And if Romney chooses a bedrock conservative for a running mate, that'll help, stalwarts say.
So among conservatives, there's hope for change in their feelings toward Romney. And, there's this possibility that serves as reassurance for some still on the fence:
"The emerging consensus among conservatives is that the Republican House will lead the conservative charge and Romney will be in the White House to sign bills, rather than advance his own agenda," said Republican consultant Matt Mackowiak, who supported Texas Gov. Rick Perry in the primary. "Conservatives don't universally claim Romney as one of their own, but they appear to have united behind him, perhaps reluctantly, but without question."
For now, though, ask how excited they are about Romney as president, and they'll say it depends.
"I'm not sure people really know where Romney is on some of the important issues," said Tom Daxon, former chairman of the state GOP in solidly Republican Kansas. "For crying out loud, I don't."
The fact that the anyone-but-Romney crowd is now trying to find reason to support him is a stark shift from the beginning of the year. Then, a stream of suitors - Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul among them - told conservatives that they presented sharper contrasts with Obama than Romney on everything from abortion to the top issue on voters' minds, jobs and the economy.
But Romney outlasted them and last week topped the 1,144 delegates needed to win the GOP nomination at the party's national convention in August.
Even before then, polling showed notable shifts toward Romney among three key voter groups.
More Republican women are choosing Romney, the research suggests. A May AP-GfK poll showed 87 percent of Republican women favored Romney, up 5 percentage points from February, while Obama's numbers stayed the same among the group. And a Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted later in May found Romney's favorability among GOP women grew from 59 percent favorable in April to 80 percent now.
Evangelicals, too, are warming to Romney, who is Mormon. White evangelical Protestants support Romney 77 percent to 22 percent for Obama, according to the most recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, on par with 2008 GOP nominee John McCain's 74 percent to 24 percent among that group. That's up from Romney's 65 percent to 26 percent advantage among that group in April.
Southern conservatives, too, are reconsidering Romney, polling shows. A rolling tracking poll by Gallup showed Romney inching further ahead among Southerners, from a 50-42 advantage for April 11 through May 6 to a 52-40 lead three weeks later.
Even if the not-Romney search is over, Romney still must find ways to prod the base of his own party to actively support him. He has already dispatched a cast of surrogates who have more credibility with conservatives to make the case for him, such as House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
Romney himself has made multiple gestures of reconciliation to conservatives. At evangelical Liberty University last month, he spoke of values like faith and family. When he's in Washington, he meets regularly with conservative groups and leaders. Romney campaign aides met last week with key members of the Republican Study Committee, the most conservative members of the House, to see how the former governor can better connect to the base.
Romney's outreach is possible, several of those interviewed said, because he never antagonized conservatives.
"Even though it got feisty during the primary, Mitt himself was personally very engaging and didn't show anger or rancor in his speeches," American Conservative Union President Al Cardenas said. "It never got personal with him. That shift in support was made smoother because of his demeanor."