A little more than two weeks after his off-key but enthusiastic renditions of “America the Beautiful” captured the spirit of a candidate who had won the Florida primary and seemed on the verge of locking down the Republican nomination for president, Romney is back in lackluster mode, reports Reuters.
Romney is facing a surprising challenge in his native state of Michigan from Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator who vaulted into contention in the state-by-state nomination battle with wins in Missouri, Minnesota and Colorado.
This week, Romney often rushed through his stump speech as if he had a plane to catch, and made awkwardly curious remarks – “I love you” to a business group, and, “The trees are the right height” in Michigan – that made him seem particularly desperate for approval.
Then there were the two opinion pieces Romney wrote for newspapers – one in the Detroit News defending his opposition to the federal bailout of the auto industry, another in the Wall Street Journal in which he attacked Obama’s policy on China as that nation’s likely future leader, Xi Jinping, visited the United States.
The moves were aimed at attracting support from conservatives who oppose government bailouts and think that Democrat Obama has not been tough enough in his trade policy with China.
Some strategists and party leaders wondered why Romney would continue to remind Michigan voters – millions of whom have ties to the auto industry – that he opposed the $81 billion bailout widely viewed as having saved the industry.
“I think his personal confidence is shaken,” said political analyst Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia. “He thought it was all over after Florida.
“He’s a gaffe machine, he can’t seem to connect with regular voters, he can’t seem to get out of tight spots,” Sabato said. “The only thing holding him up is a very weak field” that includes Santorum, former U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas congressman Ron Paul.
According to The Huff Post, even Republicans who think he’ll be the nominee worry about whether he can generate the intensity required to beat the Democratic incumbent.
“I think Romney will be the nominee, but there is still tremendous work to be done,” said Sally Bradshaw, a Florida Republican and adviser to former Gov. Jeb Bush.
“He has got to find a way to unify the party and increase the intensity of support for him among voters who have supported Newt Gingrich, or Rick Santorum or Ron Paul or someone else. And that is going to be the key to how he does in the fall.”
Romney leads in the delegate count for the nomination, and by a wide margin in private polling ahead of the Arizona primary Feb. 28. But the rising challenge from former Pennsylvania Sen.
Rick Santorum in the contest also that day in Michigan, where Romney was born and raised, underscores doubts about Romney’s ability to ignite fervor in the GOP base.
Romney maintains the lead in the delegate race with an estimated 111 delegates, according to CBS News. Santorum has 44, Gingrich 30 and Paul 15.
But hundreds of delegates remain to be won, and the “Super Tuesday” contests on March 6, when 10 states will hold contests, are likely to be a turning point for each campaign, including Romney’s.
Romney senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom says the campaign is proceeding according to plan, and that Romney — who is in Salt Lake City this weekend to mark the 10th anniversary of the Winter Olympics he led — is sticking to his message that he “is the best person to lead on jobs and the economy.”
“It’s steady as she goes,” Fehrnstrom said. “We’ve seen opponents come and go, and through it all we have come out ahead.”
Yet Michigan GOP consultant Tom Shields said Santorum, now ahead of Romney in polls Romney’s native state and where his father served as governor, is exciting people where Romney isn’t.
If Romney loses Michigan to Santorum, Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak said, it would cause “10 times the mess that Santorum created by winning” Minnesota, Colorado and Missouri on February 7.