Romney goes on the attack in attempt to halt Santorum

Wed, Feb 22, 2012, 00:00

MITT ROMNEY was barely six minutes into a campaign speech in Cincinnati on Monday afternoon, dwelling on the success story of a local bioscience company, when he broached a topic that is suddenly confounding his Republican presidential aspirations: Rick Santorum.

“Senator Santorum goes to Washington and calls himself a budget hawk, and after he’s been there a while, he says he’s no longer a budget hawk,” Romney said, his voice rising for emphasis as he looked out at the row of cameras before him. “Well, I am a budget hawk.”

As Santorum was greeted by a large and enthusiastic crowd four hours away in Ohio’s coal country, he made no mention of his rival, a clear sign that the tables have turned – for now, at least – in the Republican nominating contest, leaving Romney scrambling to regain his command over the race.

While Romney may not know for weeks or even months whether he will win the nomination, his performance over the next seven days will likely provide a telling signal on whether he can persuade the party to embrace his candidacy or whether he faces a fight to overcome scepticism about him.

After a stretch in which Santorum’s focus on appealing to conservatives through social issues has dominated the campaign, Romney has two high-profile opportunities this week to steer the conversation back to the economy and the issue of defeating President Barack Obama: a debate today in Arizona, followed by a speech on Friday in Michigan which his campaign is billing as a major policy address. Both states will hold their primaries next Tuesday.

There are few outward signs that panic has set in at the Romney campaign but concern is palpable among Romney, his allies and Republican Party elders, many of whom are increasingly fretting aloud about the prospect that he may not be as electable as he seemed only weeks ago.

“It’s way too premature to be talking about something like that,” said Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, a top supporter of Romney, when asked about the growing worries from some of his colleagues about the need to prepare for a back-up Republican candidate. “He knew that this was going to be a long haul. He’s been through it before.”

But Romney has not been through this moment before, so close to grasping the nomination, yet so far from persuading conservative activists that he has the strongest potential as a nominee to appeal to independent voters and defeat Obama.

“I wish this was over,” Alex Triantafilou, the Republican Party chairman in Cincinnati, said in an interview, adding he was not taking sides, but also not eager for a protracted fight. “I’d rather air our attacks at the president.”

The Romney campaign has shed much of the bravado that was often on display last year when it focused on Obama and all but ignored its Republican rivals.

Romney had hoped to resume his confident posture against Obama with a speech in Chicago on March 20th, the day of the Illinois primary. But those plans are on hold, given that talk of the general election is all but forbidden now and that Romney could still be battling Santorum.

For the next seven days, the campaign is intensely focused on Michigan. Romney’s candidacy would be devastated by a loss in his boyhood home.

Romney’s aides have heightened their focus on Super Tuesday on March 6th and beyond. Acutely aware that Ohio could prove just as important as Michigan, the campaign has dispatched its Florida state director, Molly Donlin, to Ohio to oversee the operation.

“A win in Michigan will definitely help in Ohio, but there will still need to be an Ohio campaign,” said Curt Steiner, a Republican strategist in Ohio who is supportive of Romney. But, he said, a loss in Michigan would necessitate a major effort: “It will signal to Romney supporters in Ohio that Ohio better be a firewall – or else.”

The campaign had something of a setback last week when a top Ohio official who had endorsed Romney in October, attorney general Mike DeWine – a former two-term US senator – switched his allegiance to Santorum.

Once operating under the hope that it would have the race effectively won after Super Tuesday, the Romney campaign is also laying groundwork in states that will vote on March 13th. The campaign dedicated a news release from Boston on Monday to trumpet new support from the Mississippi secretary of state, Delbert Hosemann.

Although campaign spending and tactics have repeatedly helped Romney put down insurgent threats this year – and could do so again in Michigan – several supporters said in interviews that the campaign machine had for the most part done what it could, and that closing the deal with Republican voters rested squarely with Romney, starting with the debate in Arizona.

Romney’s supporters acknowledged that he had been slow to recover from the triple losses to Santorum in Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado. Complicating matters, Romney was forced to play on the less comfortable political turf of social issues immediately afterwards.

As Romney held one public campaign event on Monday, Santorum raced through four stops in Ohio and Michigan.

“Ohio is going to make a huge difference,” Santorum said, speaking to a large crowd in Steubenville. “You have the opportunity here to stand up and shout loudly across this country that you want a true conservative.” – ( New York Times)