WASHINGTON - Now that Mitt Romney has emerged as the likely GOP presidential nominee, congressional Republicans increasingly are taking their cues from him even if it causes heartburn and grumbling among conservatives unhappy about having to beat a tactical retreat.
That dynamic was on full display last week as House Speaker John A. Boehner (R., Ohio) coped with the dustup generated by President Obama over student loans and Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell sidestepped Democratic attempts to brand Republicans as soft on the issue of violence against women.
It's a defensive game for Republicans, determined to avoid their stumbles last year when they lost the political battle over renewing Obama's payroll tax cut.
"Some folks in an election year would say you need to take tough issues off the table," said Rep. Rob Woodall (R., Ga.). "Other folks in an election year say you need to bring your best solutions to the toughest issues, and I'm in that latter camp."
The matter of student-loan interest rates was on the back burner until barely a week ago, when the White House elevated it to the top of its agenda. Obama pounded away during visits to university campuses in North Carolina, Iowa, and Colorado, pivotal states in the November election.
Interest rates are scheduled to double, from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent, on July 1 due to a quirk in a law Democrats muscled through Congress five years ago.
Romney on Monday endorsed the $6 billion move to forestall the interest-rate increase, even before Obama had arrived at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.
Boehner quickly set a vote, using unspent money from Obama's unpopular health-care law to pay for the plan. By Friday, the issue was mostly deflated.
The vote, however, put Republicans at odds with the Club for Growth, which urged lawmakers to oppose the legislation. The group sometimes uses its fund-raising power to back primary challengers to GOP incumbents.
Boehner accused Obama of manufacturing the issue.
"The president keeps attempting to invent these fake fights because he doesn't have a record of success or a positive agenda for our country," the speaker said. "It is as simple as this: The emperor has no clothes."
In fact, Republicans had invited a fight by failing to address the issue before Obama raised it. Their budget blueprint last month assumed the interest-rate subsidy would expire.
While the GOP chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee worked on a longer-term plan, Boehner stepped in to take the issue off the campaign table.
"I think they're doing a good job of seeing when pitches are coming at their head," said GOP strategist John Feehery of Quinn Gillespie & Associates.
But, Feehery added: "You can't just be on defense all the time. You've got to be on offense, too. The Republicans are better off when they're trying to pin Obama down on things as opposed to when they're trying to avoid haymakers from Obama."
Opportunities to go on offense are limited because Republicans control only the House.