Conservative activist Chuck Laudner was in Spokane, Washington, on Tuesday, trying to convince Republican delegates to support Rick Santorum, when he got a call from a top Santorum campaign official saying it was all over. Of course, Laudner -- he's the "Chuck" that Santorum often mentions when he recalls the days Laudner drove him around Iowa in a pickup truck -- was sad to hear the news. But speaking by phone a few minutes after Santorum's announcement, Laudner was mostly proud to have had a role in the former Pennsylvania senator's improbable success.
"This was an incredible ride," Laudner says. "Santorum wasn't supposed to win anything, anywhere, for any reason, and yet here we are in April, and he exceeded expectations every step of the way."
Laudner isn't thinking about the future, at least not yet. He's never supported Mitt Romney, but now the former Massachusetts is the presumptive Republican nominee. "He's got a lot of votes to earn between now and November," Laudner says of Romney. "It's going to take some time."
Back home in Iowa, another conservative activist and Santorum supporter, Bob Vander Plaats, was having similar thoughts. "Romney's got some work to do," Vander Plaats says. "He's got some bridges that need to be repaired, if not rebuilt. He needs to get conservatives here interested in not just voting against Obama but in working for Romney and doing the things that need to be done."
Whatever other challenges he faces, Romney will have a hard time winning in November unless he can convince the Chuck Laudners and Bob Vander Plaatses of the critical swing states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, Michigan, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, New Mexico and, yes, Iowa to do the things that need to be done for the Romney campaign. They are the conservative leaders who drive the on-the-ground organizing that results in getting people to the polls in November.
But here's the touchy part for Romney: At the same time he has to inspire the conservative base that has always viewed him with skepticism, he also has to win the support of moderate and independent women all across the country who view conservative Republicans with skepticism. A recent Gallup poll of a dozen swing states found Romney actually leading President Obama by one point among men but trailing the president by an astonishing 18 points among women.
How does Romney do it? The conventional wisdom is that, like other candidates making the transition from a primary fight to a general election, Romney should shake the Etch-A-Sketch and begin to emphasize some of his moderate positions; no more talking about being "severely conservative." Romney couldn't do that when he faced still-active challenges from Santorum and Newt Gingrich. Now, with Santorum out of the race and Gingrich barely in it, Romney should be free to shift.
Except for those conservative activists he needs so badly. Surveying today's situation, both Laudner and Vander Plaats think back to 2008, when social conservatives like themselves opposed John McCain. In February of that year, when McCain sewed up the nomination, they began an extensive period of sitting on their hands. "McCain was the nominee, and then everything went silent for months," is how Laudner recalls the time. It was only in September '08, after McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate, that a lot of activists became re-activated.
Romney can't afford a summer of conservatives sitting on their hands. What can he do? He could certainly pick a running mate who personifies conservative ideals, but if he follows tradition, that choice won't come until the Republican convention, which begins August 27 in Tampa.
What about now? Romney's best bet is to emphasize the overwhelming urgency of defeating Obama. The GOP, demoralized and suffering from Bush fatigue four years ago, is totally, completely, and unalterably united on the importance of beating Obama. It's a cause that brings longtime Romney supporters and passionate Santorum advocates together.
"It's going to be really difficult to lodge a protest vote this time around, because everything is in crisis," says Laudner. "In that respect, Romney has a better chance of coalescing the base of the party than McCain had four years ago."
Tapping into that feeling is Romney's task for the next few months. In the next few days, though, he'll probably take a step back and give Santorum's truest believers a little space. "I'm invested in Rick Santorum," says Laudner, "and I'm not ready to flip any switches yet."
Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blogposts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.