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Originally published Saturday, March 3, 2012 at 1:23 AM

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GOP leaders slow to back presidential hopefuls

After two months of voting, none of the Republican candidates for president is getting much support from the GOP leaders who could play an important role in determining the party's nominee for president.

Associated Press

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WASHINGTON —

After two months of voting, none of the Republican candidates for president is getting much support from the GOP leaders who could play an important role in determining the party's nominee for president.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has the most endorsements. But they are coming in more of a trickle than a waterfall.

The Associated Press has polled 106 of the 117 so-called superdelegates - members of the Republican National Committee who will automatically attend the party's national convention this summer and can support any candidate for president they choose, regardless of what happens in the primaries.

The results: Romney got 23 endorsements, far more than anyone else but a modest figure for the candidate many consider the front-runner. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich got four endorsements while former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Texas Rep. Ron Paul each got two.

Seventy-five RNC members were either undecided or not ready to make a public endorsement.

Some GOP leaders say they worry that a long, nasty primary fight could hurt the eventual nominee in the general election against President Barack Obama. But the vast majority of party leaders who can do something about it - the RNC delegates - are taking a wait-and-see approach.

"The close results in Michigan and Arizona show once again that the contest for the Republican nomination for president is far from over," said Bill Armistead, chairman of the Alabama Republican Party. "It is clear the nomination will not, indeed cannot, be decided on Super Tuesday."

Voters in 10 states will go to the polls on Tuesday, with 419 delegates at stake.

De Carlson, an RNC member from Nebraska, said she's leaning toward Romney but will probably wait until well past Tuesday to endorse anyone.

"I want to see what happens here in Nebraska," which has a nonbinding primary May 15, Carlson said. "I felt Romney had the best chance of winning this. But with as many different directions as this race has taken, my crystal ball hasn't done the best job."

The latest AP poll was conducted Wednesday through Friday, after Romney won the Arizona and Michigan primaries. It showed a slow but steady flow of endorsements to Romney since the last AP poll, after New Hampshire's Jan. 10 primary.

Since then, Romney picked up nine endorsements, Gingrich picked up two and Santorum and Paul each added one.

In the overall race for delegates, Romney leads with 173, followed by Santorum with 87, Gingrich with 33 and Paul with 20. It will take 1,144 delegates to clinch the nomination, and the way the primary election is going, RNC delegates could play an important role.

Every state plus the District of Columbia and five U.S. territories gets three members on the Republican National Committee. All of them are automatically invited to attend the party's national convention in Tampa, Fla., in August, with a few exceptions. The RNC members from New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida, Michigan and Arizona are excluded - for now - as part of the penalties they received for holding primaries earlier than party rules allowed.

In many states, RNC members must support the winner of primaries or caucuses in their states. The AP identified 39 states and territories in which the RNC members will be free to support any candidate they choose, though the number could shrink slightly if any of the territories vote to bind all of their delegates.

That's a total of 117 RNC delegates who will essentially be free agents at the convention.

These RNC delegates will make up a little more than 5 percent of the 2,286 delegates at the national convention, but they could be crucial to putting Romney over the top - or blocking him.

Heading into Saturday's contest in Washington state, Romney had won 52 percent of the delegates at stake in primaries and caucuses. At that rate, he won't reach the 1,144 delegates needed to clinch the nomination without help from the RNC delegates.

"Romney is without a doubt the most well-organized," said Romney backer Mark Zaccaria, the Rhode Island GOP chairman. "Most presidential campaigns are absolute chaos. Romney is on track to win the nomination and this is shaping up to be another 1980 election. I just hope he plays the Reagan part."

Another Romney backer, RNC member Greg Schaefer from Wyoming, said Romney looks strong heading into Super Tuesday.

"I think that if he shines there that it's his to lose," Schaefer said.

Momentum has been fleeting in the race so far, though Romney was on a three-state winning streak heading into the Washington state caucuses Saturday. Still, he has had trouble connecting with party's conservative base, and the same holds true among some RNC members.

RNC member Bettye Fine Collins of Alabama said she supports Santorum because he can better relate to regular working people. That contrasts with Romney's image as a wealthy investor who made millions on Wall Street.

Santorum "has never flip-flopped on conservative values," Collins said, alluding to Romney changing positions on some issues.

RNC member Lawrence Kadish of New York said he supports Gingrich because he would be best at reducing the national debt and U.S. dependence on foreign oil. He also threw a small bone to Romney.

"Romney is OK," Kadish said. "He's a businessman, he's not a disaster."

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Lauren Johnert, Associated Press deputy manager for election research and quality control, contributed to this report, along with AP writers Phillip Rawls in Montgomery, Ala.; Grant Schulte in Lincoln, Neb.; David Klepper in Providence, R.I.; Mead Gruver in Cheyenne, Wyo.; and George M. Walsh in Albany, N.Y.

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