TAMPA, Fla. -- Throughout the Republican primary campaign this spring, conservatives picked one champion after another -- Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum. Anyone, it seemed, who wasn't Mitt Romney.
But Romney vanquished them all, and this week he'll formally accept the Republican Party's presidential nomination at a national convention here in Florida. Yet social conservatives, in particular, are reluctant to embrace him. "We need to restore this country from the bottom up with a God-centered focus," said Mary Ann Pistilli, a self-identified Tea Party member from New Smyrna Beach, Fla. "I don't hear Romney talking about that message."
Conservatives turned out Wednesday in the heat, enthused to see the likes of Santorum and U.S. Senate candidate Ted Cruz from Texas, even though the event was intended to showcase their support for Romney.
But the difference between the politicians that social conservatives embraced and Romney was stark.
Cruz railed against President Obama as the most "radical" president in U.S. history, a leader who would force Catholics to "shut down your hospitals" if they refused to change their religious beliefs about contraceptives.
Romney, however, studiously avoids such red-meat rhetoric and the social issues that motivate these conservative voters, from abortion to same-sex marriage. Instead, Romney focuses almost all of his energy on the economy and jobs, betting that conservatives are eager enough to oust Obama that they'll turn out for him.
Romney's choice of Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin did excite conservatives, though that's tempered among some Christian evangelicals who are reluctant to back the first Mormon to win the party's nomination.
"Will Romney do the things he said he will do? Probably -- I hope so," said Illinois resident Mike Hayek. "But he's way better than Barack Obama."
Still, at the event Wednesday and in the convention hall all week, evangelical leaders were trying to convince fellow conservatives to support Romney.
"Let me tell you something, last time I checked, there's not a religious test to serve as president of the United States," said Ralph Reed, former executive director of the Christian Coalition. "I'm looking for somebody who shares my values, not necessarily somebody who goes to the same church as me."
Reed and other Christian leaders point to Ryan -- sometimes before even mentioning Romney -- as proof that Romney would not abandon their cause. Ryan has arguably the strongest pro-life record in Congress, according to conservative activists.
"There is no division," Santorum told the crowd. "Not one of us who spoke here today have any problem with the platform of this party."
Others said that the recent focus on Romney's family, particularly his wife, Ann, is helping to alleviate their doubts about the former Massachusetts governor.
"Ann was phenomenal," said Lisa Moerchen, of Tarpon Springs, Fla. "It's really going to help with women like me. The more I see of his family, the more I like."