Have conservatives finally stopped looking for the Romney alternative?

Evidence is mounting that conservative voters are coalescing behind Mitt Romney as the GOP nominee, after months of casting about for another champion. His acceptability rating has been rising.

Joe Skipper/Reuters
Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney greets supporters during a campaign rally in West Palm Beach, Florida, Thursday. Conservative voters may not consider former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney their ideal presidential candidate, but they appear to be gradually coming around to him.

Conservative voters may not consider former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney their ideal presidential candidate, but they appear to be gradually coming around to him. How they feel will be a big factor in whether Mr. Romney can prevail despite the biggest onslaught of attacks against him so far in advance of South Carolina’s Jan. 21 primary.

Among conservative Republicans and Republican-leaning independents nationwide, 59 percent consider Romney an acceptable nominee – while 51 percent say the same about former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and 50 percent about former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, according to a Gallup poll Jan. 10.

Romney’s acceptability rating among conservatives is up from 54 percent on Dec. 1.

His historic double win in Iowa and New Hampshire, and exit polls out of New Hampshire’s Tuesday primary, also suggest Romney’s conservative backing has started to solidify.

“Nothing succeeds like success,” says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “The reality is, the odds substantially if not heavily favor Romney to be the Republican nominee. People who identify with a party do their best to adjust to reality. It’s a gradual process,” he says.

It certainly helps Romney that that other conservative candidates – Mr. Gingrich, Mr. Santorum, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry – are splitting some of the conservative vote.

But electability – who can beat President Obama in November – also appears to be looming large, perhaps trumping traditional conservative issues for many such voters, political analysts say.

According to CBS News exit polling from New Hampshire’s Tuesday vote.

• Among the 35 percent of voters who said electability was the most important factor, 63 percent supported Romney.

• Romney was chosen by 33 percent of voters who considered themselves very conservative and 48 percent who were somewhat conservative.

• Even among those very conservative on social issues such as gay marriage and abortion, 29 percent supported Romney.

• Those who strongly support the tea party movement also came in for Romney at 36 percent.

• Born-again evangelical Christians gave Romney 31 percent of their vote.

In all of the above categories, no other candidate outdid Romney.

Still, conservatives in South Carolina are more socially conservative than in New Hampshire, so Romney is now being forced to defend himself more vigorously to these voters.

The Gingrich campaign has been portraying Romney as a flip-flopper on abortion in an ad campaign in the state, pushing Romney to remind voters he’s a “pro-life” candidate.

“I’m convinced that the principles of opportunity and freedom and the protection of life were not temporary but are permanent,” he said Wednesday, campaigning in South Carolina, according to Associated Press. On Thursday, he repeated “life” twice when reciting the Declaration of Independence, AP reported. 

Attacks against Romney’s record at Bain Capital have also come on strong in recent days. But that’s actually led some conservatives, worried that such attacks could be leverage for Democrats in November – to speak in his defense.

Romney has also racked up endorsements from people who are popular among conservatives. His campaign announced Thursday the support of John Bolton, an ambassador to the United Nations under George W. Bush.

South Carolina Speaker Pro Tempore Jay Lucas also touted Romney as “the kind of strong conservative leader our country needs right now,” according to a Romney press release Thursday.

And on Wednesday, Romney won the endorsement of the co-author of the Arizona and Alabama laws cracking down on illegal immigration, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach.

“You’re starting to see a lot of, not just party establishment figures but conservative establishment figures, starting to line up behind him, and that will help him make that case that he is conservative enough, if not ideally so,” says Chris Galdieri, an elections expert at St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H.

While some conservative commentators worry that Romney won’t generate enough enthusiasm as a nominee, Romney would benefit from a changed landscape since 2008, when John McCain couldn’t turn out enough votes to beat Barack Obama, says Professor Sabato. Mr. Obama was an “icon” in 2008, he notes, but if Romney is the nominee, he’ll be running in a year when anti-Obama sentiment will “generate the Republican enthusiasm that maybe Romney cannot.”


Watch this video of Mitt Romney campaigning in New Hampshire ahead of Tuesday's primary election:

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