Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, greets supporters during a campaign stop in Portsmouth, Va., on Thursday, May 3, 2012. (AP Photo/Virginian-Pilot,Ross Taylor)
WASHINGTON (AP) — Republican party leaders are starting to rally around Mitt Romney, but it's not exactly a stampede of support for the expected GOP presidential nominee.
With Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich out of the race, Romney is his party's pick to take on President Barack Obama this fall, barring a catastrophe. While Romney talks like the nominee, the former Massachusetts governor has work to do to round up enough convention delegates to make it official.
Romney has 856 delegates, according to The Associated Press count. That's 288 short of the 1,144 he needs to win the nomination. Romney could get about 100 delegates from Tuesday's primaries in North Carolina, Indiana and West Virginia, if he dominates the voting in all three states.
But unless he persuades a lot more Santorum and Gingrich delegates to switch allegiances, Romney might not clinch until the Texas primary May 29. On Sunday, Romney lost 11 delegates to Texas Rep. Ron Paul when Paul's supporters won control of the Maine GOP convention and elected Paul delegates to the party's national convention.
Romney is "the projected candidate," said Peggy Lambert, a member of the Republican National Committee from Tennessee who endorsed Romney last week. "Let's go ahead and get this thing over with. Let's get as many delegates as we can."
Santorum and Gingrich have said they will help Romney defeat Obama, but neither has released his delegates to vote for Romney at the national convention in August. Santorum has 257 delegates and Gingrich has 130. In interviews during the past week, many delegates said they were reluctant to back Romney without guidance from their former candidates.
Paul is the only other Republican still in the race, and he has 94 delegates.
Many committee members are getting behind Romney, though some are half-hearted about it. These party leaders — three from each state and U.S. territory — automatically attend the national convention and, in most states, can support any candidate they choose.
They will be asked to donate, volunteer and work for Republican candidates up and down the ticket, making their support for Romney an important barometer of enthusiasm and unity among GOP loyalists.
"I think the process has narrowed down and we've got a chance to hear all the candidates and all the debate," said Jonathan Barnett, an RNC member from Arkansas who serves in the state Legislature. "Really, he's pretty much the only one left standing. It's time to get on board."
Alabama GOP chairman Bill Armistead sounded more enthusiastic. He said he's recruiting volunteers to help Romney in Florida, where the race will be much closer than in Alabama.
"The No. 1 objective of the people I talk to is to defeat Barack Obama," Armistead said.
The RNC has 168 members. Some are required to support the candidate who wins the primary in their state. The AP has identified 120 who are free to support any candidate they choose, regardless of the primaries.
Romney has endorsements from 57 of them, according to the AP's latest survey, conducted in the past week after Gingrich's plans to leave the race became public. Paul has one endorsement, while 60 RNC members are holding off on endorsing anyone, even with the race essentially decided. (Two RNC spots won't be filled until June.)
Some RNC members say they have yet to endorse Romney because of local concerns.
Kentucky GOP chairman Steve Robertson said he isn't endorsing anyone out of deference to Paul's son, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. In Oregon, Nebraska and New Mexico, RNC members say they won't endorse anyone before their states' primaries, which have yet to be held.
Back when the primary race was competitive, some RNC members questioned Romney's conservative credentials. In the latest survey, no RNC member was willing to say he or she had a problem with him.
But Richard Giessel, a Santorum delegate in Alaska, wasn't shy about his disdain for Romney, calling him "a big government guy."
"We've got too big a government now," said Giessel, who said he now plans to support Ron Paul.
Romney added 22 RNC endorsements since the last AP survey in early April, and he has support from every region of the country. None of Romney's rivals was able to gain much traction among the RNC delegates. Gingrich had four endorsements at one point, more than any of the others.
Drew Johnson, a Gingrich delegate from South Carolina, said he thinks the state's delegates will unite behind Romney. South Carolina, a solidly Republican state, was one of only two states Gingrich won in the primaries.
"Romney has my endorsement and he can count on South Carolina to be one of his biggest cheering sections at the national convention," said Johnson, who leads the Chester County Republicans. "My focus is crystal clear for the upcoming election. We will be making calls to any state it is needed and even send South Carolina activists to real swing states to defeat Obama."
Associated Press writers Erik Schelzig in Nashville, Tenn.; Andrew DeMillo in Little Rock, Ark.; Phillip Rawls in Montgomery, Ala.; Becky Bohrer in Juneau, Alaska; Meg Kinnard in Columbia, S.C.; Kristen Wyatt in Denver, Colo., and Glenn Adams in Augusta, Maine, contributed to this report.