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Associated Press
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney waves to a crowd Wednesday in Warwick, R.I., a day after Rick Santorum exited the race.

Uniting a split GOP: Romney’s next task

– Now is the time for Mitt Romney to mend his Republican fences and bring around those dubious voters who kept spurning him for Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and others to the right.

After a nasty primary battle that all but ended Tuesday when Santorum quit the field, his challenge is to somehow excite the party’s staunchest conservatives without alienating the independent voters he’ll need to defeat President Obama in the fall.

While most primary voters surveyed in exit polls said they would ultimately be satisfied with Romney as the nominee, a significant chunk balked. Such surveys conducted in nine states during the primary season found 44 percent of GOP voters said Romney just wasn’t conservative enough.

And it’s more than just votes that Romney needs from evangelical voters and other social conservatives.

“If you don’t get them out there donating, talking to their friends, doing social media, you’re missing out on an army that should be activated,” said Republican consultant Matt Mackowiak, who was a supporter of former GOP contender Rick Perry. He said Romney needs to address his Mormon faith and must talk about values to stir this group to action.

The traditional means of unifying a party post-primary is through endorsements from the losing candidates. Although Santorum did not mention Romney in his concession speech, his campaign said he will meet with him to discuss ways to help.

Gingrich insists he will stay in the race as a conservative voice but he also says he will support the eventual nominee. Typically some behind-the-scenes negotiations lead up to such endorsements.

Romney confidently predicts that the party will be united by its disdain for Obama’s efforts to solve the nation’s economic woes and his “European social welfare state” policies.

Indeed, many Republicans foresee a general election that focuses on the worries of voters of all political stripes about persistent unemployment, a sluggish economy, taxes and the national debt – with social issues fading with the end of Santorum’s campaign.

“Every minute the Republicans spend talking about social issues going forward is strategically a mistake because the more fertile ground is on the economy and the deficit and spending,” Mackowiak said.

“Who’s going to bring up social issues, Obama? No, they’re going to be trying to make this about Romney being part of the 1 percent” of wealthiest Americans.