Mitt Romney stepped up his efforts to rally Republicans around his candidacy on Thursday with several hours of private appeals to lawmakers on Capitol Hill and renewed pressure on his rivals to bow to political reality.
A day after securing the backing of Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, Romney won praise from Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, a tea party leader who backed Romney in 2008 but has said he will not formally endorse a candidate in the Republican fight this year.
Nonetheless, DeMint emerged from a private conversation with Romney to say that "I'm not only comfortable with Romney, I'm excited about the possibility of him possibly being our nominee," according to CNN.
DeMint urged Romney's rivals to "help the one who is going to win" once they conclude that their own candidacy is futile.
Raising money in San Antonio, a defiant Rick Santorum tried to capitalize for another day on what he contends was a Romney aide's unintentional but candid admission that Romney will shift positions and remake himself politically like shaking an Etch A Sketch.
"You win by giving people the opportunity to see a different vision for our country, not someone who's just going to be a little different than the person in there," Santorum said. "We might as well stay with what we have instead of taking a risk of what may be the Etch A Sketch candidate for the future."
That prompted a furious reply from Romney's campaign, which accused Santorum of saying, "if it's not me, let's re-elect Obama."
In a strongly worded memo from Rich Beeson, Romney's political director, the campaign called Santorum "President Obama's MVP."
"Each day Senator Santorum continues to march up this steep hill of improbability is a day we lose to unite in our effort as Republicans to defeat President Obama," Beeson wrote. "So as Senator Santorum continues to drag out this already expensive, negative campaign it is clear that he is becoming the most valuable player on President Obama's team."
Romney and Santorum both headed to Louisiana on Thursday for two days of campaigning before the state's primary Saturday. Romney is scheduled to hold a rally at a New Orleans mall this morning before heading to Shreveport; Santorum will rally supporters at the Ouachita Sheriff's Shooting Range in Monroe.
Santorum has expressed confidence that he will do well in the latest Southern primary. But he remains far behind Romney in the delegate count. Louisiana will award 46 delegates to the Republican National Committee proportionally.
Romney spent Thursday morning on Capitol Hill for a fundraiser and several closed-door sessions with Republican lawmakers from Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Texas three states that will hold important primaries in the weeks ahead.
Romney has received more endorsements from Washington lawmakers than his rivals even though he is the only one of the four remaining contenders who has not served in Congress. Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the House majority leader, is among the most senior Republicans who have endorsed Romney's bid.
But Thursday's meetings, which were held in the conference room at the National Republican Campaign Committee in Washington, were described by several of those present as "meet-and-greet" opportunities for members who have not spent time with Romney.
The meeting with DeMint could be particularly important for Romney as he seeks to cement the idea that conservatives are warming to his candidacy. Romney lost badly in January's South Carolina primary, where conservative and tea party voters flocked to Newt Gingrich.
But DeMint suggested that it was time for conservatives to start thinking about the fall campaign.