TAMPA — Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich used to be among Mitt Romney's fiercest critics, repeatedly lashing him during the contentious Republican primary as willing to do or say anything to win the nomination, and labeling him a champion of policies that mirror President Barack Obama's.
But now the tables are turned, and the two men have shelved their apparent loathing of Romney and are making his case to voters at this week's Republican National Convention. Both are playing prominent roles in Tampa, winning speaking roles in prime time and urging voters to choose Romney.
Romney's closest competitor in the GOP race after winning 11 primaries, Santorum gave a deeply personal speech from the podium on the convention's first official night, bashing Obama for allegedly easing the work requirements in welfare reform. He also took up the banner for family values in politics, which he spoke about eloquently when he was a candidate.
Santorum praised Romney and urged voters to back him, despite calling Romney the worst choice against Obama during the primaries because of his enactment of a health care law in Massachusetts.
"A vote for Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan will put our country back in the hands of leaders who understand what America can and, for the sake of our children, must be to keep the dream alive," Santorum said.
Gingrich won't speak until tonight, but Romney and convention officials hoped he would be a bigger draw at daily policy discussions they dubbed "Newt University." Each event focuses on a different issue — energy policy or Medicare, for example — and features two hours of presentations and discussions, aimed at giving attendees a better understanding of possible ideas for reform.
"This was not my choice; this was the Romney people," Gingrich, a former college professor, told the Ohio GOP delegation Monday of the name. "I probably would have called it something a little less obviously egocentric."
Originally, the former House speaker wasn't given a prime-time speaking slot — instead, he was relegated to the policy discussions. But the ex-Georgia lawmaker has been a steady presence at this year's GOP confab, hosting "Newt U" and visiting state delegations.
At Wednesday's "Newt U," Gingrich ran the show, introducing each of his speakers and refereeing the program. Guests have ranged from elected officials to pollsters to policy wonks.
A steady presence at her husband's side while he was on the campaign trail during the primaries, Callista Gingrich was there as well, canvassing the room to talk with attendees and sitting in the audience for the speeches.
The first three sessions didn't draw big crowds: The Wednesday event, for example, lured about 50 or 75 attendees. But the primary audience seems to be online: About 1,100 people signed up to watch the session on Monday, a number that grew to 1,900 by Wednesday. Gingrich announced Wednesday that he's hoping to break 2,000 online visitors for the fourth and final session today.
Interestingly, Gingrich's comments turned more on a post-primary analysis than on touting Romney for the White House.
"Look, I always thought it was a long shot," Gingrich told reporters during one event. "If I were to redo the campaign, there are three or four things I'd do differently, almost all involving me, not involving my opponents."
Gingrich said that if he'd won the nomination, he would have involved Romney in the programming as well.
"Mitt and I talked about this during the campaign, if I become the nominee — I don't think he'd be doing 'Romney U,' but I'd actually ask him to be finance chairman," Gingrich said. "We all have certain strengths, and he would have done it."
Gingrich seemed content with his role as policy pro. "I've always been a teacher … for me, this is an extension of what I've done my whole life," he said. "If I had won the presidency, I would have been a teaching president."
Santorum also spoke to delegation breakfasts, laying aside the fiery rhetorical zingers he used on the campaign trail — or at least sending them in a new direction.
"We have a president who has a view of America that, well, is not consistent with our founders' view of this country. It's not consistent with the values that built the greatest country in the history of the world of limited government, of God-given rights," Santorum said at a breakfast for the Ohio delegation Wednesday.
After shedding his role of conservative provocateur, he's worked to unite conservatives behind Romney. On Wednesday, the former Pennsylvania senator hosted a reception on Romney's behalf that drew dozens of evangelicals, including the Family Research Council's Tony Perkins and the social conservative leader Gary Bauer. Ted Cruz, the tea party star who bested Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in the state's Senate GOP Senate primary, also came to rally for Romney.
Matt Romney — one of Romney's five sons — also attended and gave Santorum a bit of a boost.
"We have a lot to look forward to with his political career, don't we?" he asked.