They often looked ready to trade blows in the debates. Just a few weeks ago, Mitt Romney called John McCain a liar for allegedly distorting Romney's position on the Iraq War. For his part, McCain seemed to revel in leading the other Republican candidates in ganging up on Romney, whom he didn't even try to pretend to like.
But all that is ancient history now. After watching Mike Huckabee continue to rack up delegates and signal he has no intention of exiting the race--as he did after the Virginia primary Tuesday night--Romney decided to formally endorse the Arizona senator Thursday. According to a source close to Romney, who asked not to be identified discussing internal campaign strategy, the former Massachusetts governor was spurred to action by Huckabee's "decision to linger against impossible odds, delaying the launch of a general-election campaign ... We were going to endorse at some point. The only question was when. Doing it now seemed to have added value, given that Huckabee continues to be a presence."
Despite Romney's decision to endorse McCain, the men have hardly become chummy in recent days. A second source close to Romney stressed that the "businessman" in him decided to make the endorsement for "practical" reasons. A third Romney adviser stressed that it "was always sort of inevitable" that Romney would formally endorse McCain. But the adviser said that the McCain campaign was in a hurry to move things along (so much so that Romney delayed a family trip to California to visit his grandchildren so that he could make the announcement). The adviser said that Romney's delegates, while not bound by law to McCain, will "put him over the top" if they support the senator as expected. The McCain campaign "want[ed] to get it done sooner", the adviser said of the endorsement, because they hope to get Huckabee out of the race. The Romney adviser added that he believes the RNC will begin increasing pressure on the former Arkansas governor to step aside very soon.
As is typical of Romney, the choice to endorse was a no-nonsense call arrived at without a lot of ceremony. Romney's campaign manager phoned Rick Davis, who is managing McCain's campaign, and told him of Romney's plans Thursday morning, Romney's spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom tells NEWSWEEK. Romney had intended to announce his endorsement Monday, before Tuesday's Wisconsin primary, but McCain's campaign wanted to move the announcement up since McCain was campaigning in Rhode Island on Thursday and could easily get to Boston for the press conference. Romney and McCain met inside Romney's Boston headquarters for 15 minutes, Fehrnstrom said, before adding that the men had not spoken since last week when Romney dropped out of the race.
That 15-minute meeting was hastily arranged since Romney didn't even make up his mind to move forward until Thursday morning. Romney was meeting with staff for the first time since last week and "expressed an interest in helping Senator McCain get the delegates he needed to win the nomination," Fehrnstrom said. During his concession speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington last week, Romney gave McCain what Fehrnstrom called an "implied endorsement," saying: "I disagree with Senator McCain on a number of issues, as you know. But I agree with him on doing whatever it takes to be successful in Iraq, on finding and executing Osama bin Laden and on eliminating Al Qaeda and terror. If I fight on in my campaign, all the way to the convention, I would forestall the launch of a national campaign and make it more likely that Senators [Hillary] Clinton or [Barack] Obama would win. And in this time of war, I simply cannot let my campaign be a part of aiding a surrender to terror."
Fehrnstrom called Thursday's announcement a "full formal endorsement" and said that Romney has asked the 280 delegates he won during early primaries and caucuses to support the Arizona senator. "The only interest Governor Romney had in making his announcement today was helping Senator McCain get the delegates he needed to get the party's nomination and move forward while Democrats are still fighting amongst themselves," Fehrnstrom said.
Romney has not yet been scheduled to make appearances on the trail for McCain, but he "will do whatever the McCain campaign asks him to do," Fehrnstrom said. He batted away suggestions that Romney, who is widely thought to be plotting a run in 2012, overcame his personal animosity toward McCain to curry favor with party leaders for the next time around. In his speech in Boston, standing side by side with McCain, Romney acknowledged his combative history with the Arizona senator and all-but-certain Republican nominee. But he said he never lost his respect for the party's presumed nominee. "Even when the contest was close and our disagreements were debated, the caliber of the man was apparent," Romney said. "This is a man capable of leading our country at a dangerous hour. For him, national security isn't just another item on the agenda. It is the abiding concern and responsibility of our nation."