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Romney's lead hasn't convinced many of GOP's unpledged delegates

By Dan Merica and Adam Levy, CNN
updated 8:01 PM EDT, Mon March 26, 2012
Support of unpledged delegates could make the difference between a unified GOP convention and a floor fight in Tampa, Florida.
Support of unpledged delegates could make the difference between a unified GOP convention and a floor fight in Tampa, Florida.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • There are 117 unpledged Republican National Committee delegates
  • According to a CNN survey, only 39 of them have chosen to endorse any candidate
  • The unpledged could make a difference if no candidate has 1,144 delegates

Washington (CNN) -- By all measures, Mitt Romney won convincingly in Puerto Rico earlier this month. He captured 83% of the popular vote and all 20 of the island's pledged delegates. But that's not all Romney took back to the mainland.

The day after the primary, the Romney campaign announced that Carlos Méndez, chairman of the Puerto Rico Republican Party, had jumped ship, leaving Newt Gingrich's campaign to endorse the former Massachusetts governor. The switch was a coup for Romney because many state or territory chairs -- those coveted "unpledged" delegates -- are holding back their support in the GOP nomination process, which is far more than symbolic.

Méndez is one of 117 unpledged Republican National Committee delegates. Each group of three includes the head of the state or territory party, the committeeman and the committeewoman. In many cases, they can vote independently of who their local constituents express as their popular preference. Each state or territory is allotted three delegate slots for these leaders, but some mandate they remain pledged in accordance with the primary results.

Check out CNN.com's delegate calculator

According to a CNN survey of the unpledged RNC delegates, only 39 of them have chosen to endorse any candidate. Thirty-four are for Romney, three for Gingrich and two for Rick Santorum. No unpledged delegates have endorsed Ron Paul.

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"The most common reason that they're uncommitted now is that they're the ones running the primary," said CNN Contributor Ari Fleischer, former press secretary to President George W. Bush. "If you're the chair of Alabama -- your job is to put on the primary. It makes your life easier if each of the candidates can say you are neutral and fair."

Even after privately voting in a contest, some unpledged RNC delegates chose to remain publicly uncommitted.

"If the Mississippi primary would have ended up 51% to 22% and 16%, that would have been a bit more of a statement," said Joe Nosef, chairman of the Mississippi Republican Party. "It is not like the primary results told me much about where things are at."

Santorum won a close race in Mississippi earlier this month with 35% of the vote, while Gingrich and Romney tied at 29%.

With four candidates still in the race, the likelihood of a brokered convention grows if no candidate earns the 1,144 delegates necessary to win the nomination before the first ballot. If that happens, the support of unpledged RNC delegates can be the difference between a united and brokered convention in Tampa, Florida.

"It is a possibility," said Peggy Lambert, the undecided national committeewoman from Tennessee. "I hope we don't. I hope we have a clear-cut candidate, but it is certainly possible."

Almost all delegates sampled indicated that they hope that the party won't have to go through a brokered convention.

"I would prefer not to have a brokered convention, but I don't see any of our candidates having the ability to get over 50% of the delegates on the first ballot," said Borah Van Dormolen, national committeewoman from Texas. "It may be the environment of the national convention for us to realize that we have to choose a winner and get united."

Van Dormolen initially supported Texas Gov. Rick Perry for president but remains undecided, despite Perry's immediate endorsement of Gingrich in January. "He [Gingrich] has won only two states. I think right now the writing is on the wall that the momentum is going more towards Santorum and Romney," she said.

In some cases, the campaigns reach out to party leadership and ask for their support. On the whole, however, many of the delegates indicate that they have not yet been courted by the campaigns.

Fleischer, a veteran of multiple GOP presidential campaigns, says that the case the Gingrich and Santorum campaign should be making to the uncommitted RNC delegates should center on a need to stop Romney from taking "down the party with him."

"If you're Santorum or Newt, you're best argument against Romney is that Romney can't win, therefore you, uncommitted delegate, need to be with me to save the party," he said. "That's a harder argument to make when there are no polls that say you can win against Obama."

Nosef says the reason unpledged delegates remain uncommitted has less to do with not being courted or not being happy with the candidates. Instead, he thinks delegates are still deciding what they want from a president.

Do they want what "Romney provides, which is more mainstream electability?" Nosef said. "Or do they want a fighter like Gingrich or do they want someone like Santorum who has talking about the social issue that we have been worrying about for a long time?"

"I think a lot of people don't necessarily like to think they are just falling in line," said Nosef. "They want to make up their mind."

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