As Gingrich Exits, GOP Unity Still Elusive for Romney

Romney has sewn up the Republican nomination, but he still isn't fully embraced by his former rivals -- or the conservative base.

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Reuters

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Newt Gingrich had been speaking for nearly 17 minutes Wednesday by the time he got around to talking about Mitt Romney. In addition to announcing the long-anticipated suspension of his presidential campaign, the former House speaker had mused about the New Hampshire state budget, the Chilean welfare system, Captain John Smith's view of the work ethic, the promise of regenerative medicine and, naturally, the vital importance of a colony on the moon.

At last, the subject of the man who bested him for the Republican nomination had to be confronted.

"As for the presidency," Gingrich said, surveying the stuffy Hilton ballroom filled with journalists and loyalists, "I'm asked sometimes, 'Is Mitt Romney conservative?' And my answer is simple: Compared to Barack Obama?"

From Gingrich and the conservative base he so ably channels, this may be the best Romney can hope for: the acknowledgment that he is preferable to the alternative.

"Now, this is not a choice between Mitt Romney and Ronald Reagan," Gingrich continued. "This is a choice between Mitt Romney and the most radical, leftist president in American history."

Even as Gingrich spoke, Romney was just a few miles away -- 13 stops on the Orange Line of the Washington Metro -- taking meetings at the Republican National Committee and basking in the long-awaited embrace of the official GOP establishment. The presumptive nominee was in the midst of a two-day campaign swing through Gingrich's home state of Virginia. Yet there were no plans for the two to meet, according to both campaigns. And before long, Gingrich's indulgent, 22-minute speech had moved on to such subjects as George Washington, holograms, and the Kaiser. (Romney, for his part, responded to the backhanded compliment with a press release attesting that Gingrich had "brought creativity and intellectual vitality to American political life" and "demonstrated both eloquence and fearlessness in advancing conservative ideas.")

As Romney segues into the general-election campaign, the primary remains very much with him. His rivals have almost all dropped out (Ron Paul remains quietly in contention), but they have made no show of unity; if anything, Gingrich and Rick Santorum have gestured in the opposite direction, signaling their continued reluctance -- and that of the many Republican voters who supported them -- to embrace Romney fully. (Another former rival, Rep. Michele Bachmann, also has yet to endorse Romney, choosing instead to tie herself in knots in various television interviews avoiding the magic words of formal support.)

This week's controversy over the departure from the Romney campaign of an openly gay foreign-policy spokesman was, in a way, an illustration of the challenge Romney faces with the right. Part of the reason social conservatives raised objections to the hire of Richard Grenell may have been that they saw it as proof of what they already suspected: that Romney is squishy on the issues they care about.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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