ROSEMONT, Ill. – Republicans riding high from a string of breaks in their favor are increasingly optimistic about Mitt Romney's chances to claim the White House in November, even among conservatives who had qualms about making him the party's nominee.
The bullish take is reflected in interviews with party strategists and activists, including people who supported Romney rivals during the primary season. Mood matters because it can fuel fundraising and volunteer hustle. But some of those GOP players stress that Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, has little room for error if he expects to topple an incumbent president.
The chest-thumping follows a GOP victory in last week's Wisconsin recall election that saved Gov. Scott Walker's job. The race galvanized Republicans who saw it as an early 2012 referendum on conservative fiscal principles in an election that was likely to hinge on the shape of the economy.
Even Rick Santorum, who spent a primary season casting doubt on Romney's ability to succeed in a general election, says things are looking up for Romney.
"I can tell you, I feel a little bit better about that election since what happened on Tuesday up in Wisconsin," Santorum said Friday at a Conservative Political Action Conference in Chicago.
Some Republican voters concede they aren't as passionate about electing Romney as they are about booting Democratic President Barack Obama from the Oval Office.
"He's obviously it, and he's what is left," retired FBI agent David Hirtz, an active member of his central Illinois tea party, said of Romney. "Anybody is better than Obama."
In mid-May, a USA Today/Gallup poll found 81 percent of Democrats and 58 percent of independents predicting an Obama victory. Among Republicans, 68 percent thought Romney will win — about the same percentage of faith GOP voters placed in 2008 nominee John McCain at this point in his campaign.
But that was before the closely watched Wisconsin recall, the release of key campaign finance figures and the latest figures on job growth raised concerns about a slowing economic recovery, which gave Romney more fodder to pound Obama's stewardship.
Romney and his Republican allies pulled down more money than Obama and aligned Democratic Party committees in May, a notable shift in the money chase. The $76 million haul was a big jump up from what Romney and the GOP had raised the month before, and it was comfortably above the $60 million gathered by the combined Obama team.
A conservative base that was deeply splintered during the Republican primaries has coalesced around Romney even faster than some in the party were expecting.
That's the case with Bobbi Jo Rohrberg, a 36-year-old teacher and conservative blogger from southwestern Iowa who backed Santorum at the state's leadoff caucuses in January. She was worried a Romney nomination would look too much like McCain's fateful run.
Rohrberg said Romney initially struck her as someone who was "not going to have a lot of bite, not going to show the teeth, going to be very likeable and agreeable to go along and get along, which isn't going to get you anywhere if you are going to win."
But she said those concerns faded after Romney blasted Obama outside failed California solar energy company Solyndra, which received federal stimulus loans, and his recent efforts to brand the president as incapable of guiding the economy.
Virginia Procuniar, who plans to contribute money to Romney after initially holding back, said her confidence in his chances comes from seeing Obama have to play defense more regularly.
"Obama is his (own) worst enemy. As he gets more in a corner and more on the defensive, he's making gaffes that are ticking people off," said Procuniar, who at 65 recently retired from the insurance company in Chicago.
On Friday, Obama exposed himself to GOP ridicule for an ill-cast appraisal that the "the private sector is doing fine." He later clarified that he meant there was "good momentum" lately, but the earlier remark had already become GOP ad material. Romney released a Web ad Sunday slamming Obama for the remark by contrasting it with eight people who tell how they've struggled despite the recovering economy.
For the GOP, the climb to victory remains steep. Several states that Obama won four years ago would have to flip for Romney to reach the required 270 electoral votes.
"Let's be honest about it, at the presidential level, the Democrats took the Republicans out behind the woodshed a little bit in 2008. By the sheer number of electoral votes Barack Obama won last time, clearly we have our work cut out for us," said Gregg Keller, executive director of the American Conservative Union. "It's a tough map for us and no one should think this is going to be a walk in the park. It's going to be a tough race. But Republicans and conservatives believe this is an eminently winnable race."
The conservative gathering just outside Chicago — where Obama's political operation is based — focused attention on a Midwest region that could prove pivotal.
To the west, Iowa will be one of the most hotly contested states. Republicans have overtaken Democrats in Iowa voter party registration, the first time in six years they've had that pre-election advantage.
To the east, an Obama repeat in Indiana is viewed as unlikely and Ohio with its 18 electoral votes will be in play as usual. Republicans see a chance to apply pressure in Wisconsin and Michigan, too.
Illinois, the state that first sent Obama to the U.S. Senate, is hardly fertile territory for Romney. But conservative activists like Robert Baker of Princeton, Ill., said his local tea party group is already planning weekend canvass trips across the border in Iowa and Wisconsin, much like they did ahead of last week's recall. The Wisconsin win put a taste in their mouths, Baker said.
"We've demonstrated we can mobilize," the retired math teacher said. "We'll be pounding the pavement and handing out literature."
Associated Press Deputy Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta in Washington contributed to this report.