|Prolonged Race Forces Romney Campaign to Recalibrate|
By JIM RUTENBERG and JEFF ZELENY
TROY, Mich. — Whether Mitt Romney wins or loses the Michigan and Arizona primaries on Tuesday, his advisers are warning donors and other supporters to prepare for a longer, more bruising and more expensive fight for the Republican presidential nomination that may not be settled until at least May.
That campaign trail reality is prompting a new round of intensified fund-raising by his financial team, which had hoped by this point to be collecting money for a general election match with President Obama. The campaign is increasingly trying to quell anxiety among Republican leaders, while intently focusing on the mechanics of accumulating delegates needed to secure the nomination.
Mr. Romney’s aides said they were confident that their sustained attacks portraying Rick Santorum as a Washington insider, and Mr. Santorum’s shaky debate performance in Arizona on Wednesday, had slowed their rival’s recent surge here in Michigan.
But Mr. Romney is by no means in the clear, they said, as he fights to avert a loss in the state where he was born and raised — and where less than three weeks ago he was expected to win handily, before Mr. Santorum’s surprise triumphs in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri.
On Saturday, both candidates made appeals to conservatives who were here for a gathering of the group Americans for Prosperity. Mr. Santorum, who was received with booming applause, lit into Mr. Romney, calling him a politically pliable elitist whose Massachusetts health care plan and selective support for bailouts — for Wall Street’s, against the auto industry’s — disqualified him to be the party’s standard-bearer against Mr. Obama.
“What you have with me is ‘what you see is what you get,’ ” Mr. Santorum said, “as opposed to ‘what you see today may be something different than what you get tomorrow.’ ”
Mr. Santorum is likewise preparing to fight on for weeks or months, enticed by new party rules that award delegates in early primaries and caucuses based on each candidate’s share of the votes. “The race is going to go a long time,” he said as he left the stage, promising to “fight fire with fire.”
At the same event, Mr. Romney answered with sharp criticism of Mr. Santorum’s support for earmarks and for former Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, a defender of abortion rights, and his statement at Wednesday’s debate that at times he had to “take one for the team” by voting, out of party loyalty, for provisions he did not agree with.
“This taking one for the team, that’s business as usual in Washington,” Mr. Romney said. “We have to have principled, conservative leadership, and I have demonstrated that through my life.”
The party’s new delegate system is a major contributor to the prolonged nature of the contest, along with the advent of supportive and well-financed “super PACs” that have helped Mr. Romney’s competitors stay in the delegate hunt when their candidacies might otherwise have withered without enough cash.
Still, for many Republicans, the question is not just whether Mr. Romney will eventually capture the nomination, but at what cost.
There is a growing sense among party leaders that the primary fight has gone on long enough and that continued attacks by the candidates and their allies have steered the conversation away from the economy and could damage the party’s prospects in the fall. But several Republicans said a diversion to social issues threatened to turn off independent voters, who will be needed to form a winning coalition in the fall.
“The general election prospects for Republicans certainly would be better served if more focus was spent on Obama’s policies and the failures of those policies,” said Haley Barbour, a former governor of Mississippi and longtime party leader. “There’s still time for that, but would it improve our prospects greatly.”
The acknowledgment that the intraparty competition will most likely continue into the spring would seem to sweep aside the Romney campaign’s hope that it could string together a series of early victories sufficient to claim the nominee’s mantle — symbolically, at least — and begin focusing exclusively on Mr. Obama.
As it happened, Mr. Romney’s victories have come in fits and starts amid intensely negative attacks from all sides, leaving the party facing chatter about a contested convention in Tampa, Fla., if none of the candidates have won the 1,144 delegates needed.
In interviews, Mr. Romney’s aides and supporters dismissed that notion, and said their campaign was built to be ready to go the distance if necessary.
“We’re just going to have to work a little harder, and this team will do it,” said Mel Sembler, a member of Mr. Romney’s finance team, adding it would be “ready to supply whatever he needs to win this primary” campaign.
“We’re all on the telephone again,” he said, “and we’re getting it done. It’s just going to take longer.”
Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana said Saturday that the Republican race would almost certainly not be settled by May 8, the date of the primary in his state. He said that he did not believe any new candidates would enter the race — he unequivocally declared he would not — and that the burden was on the current field to make its case to voters.
“The only problem that I would worry about, and have all along,” Mr. Daniels said, “is our side might not offer a bold enough and specific enough and constructive enough — and I would say inclusive enough — alternative.”
The Republican presidential race was a central topic as governors gathered in Washington for their annual meeting. The intense negativity in the campaign alarmed many of them.
Gov. Paul R. LePage of Maine, a Republican, said the candidates had “injured themselves and injured the party by not following what Ronald Reagan said: Never speak badly of another Republican.” He said delegates to the Republican National Convention should “pick a fresh face,” someone not in the race now.
Reflecting the unsettled outlook, aides to both Mr. Romney and Mr. Santorum are playing down the importance of the Michigan and Arizona primaries. Those contests are preludes to the biggest day of voting in the Republican campaign on March 6, with 10 states and 437 delegates at play on Super Tuesday.
That terrain is far less hospitable to Mr. Romney than Michigan and Arizona, particularly a swath of Southern states, where polls suggest that he is trailing Mr. Santorum and Newt Gingrich. Mr. Gingrich is aggressively trying to revive his candidacy on Super Tuesday in Georgia, the state he represented in Congress, and a super PAC supporting Mr. Santorum is advertising across Ohio, another Super Tuesday state.
The better-financed super PAC that supports Mr. Romney, Restore Our Future, is already running advertisements attacking Mr. Santorum and Mr. Gingrich in Super Tuesday states. A senior official with the group said the intent was to “kill any comeback talk” in the event of major March 6 victories by either — or both — of them, particularly in the South, assuming Mr. Romney does well in Michigan and Arizona.
In Michigan, some Republican leaders expressed worries about the effect of an extended battle on the party’s prospects of winning the White House and suggested that the time had come for the party to rally around one candidate, however imperfect.
“I don’t have that spark behind any one candidate at the moment,” said Anna Mouser, the Republican chairwoman in Grand Traverse County. “But we do need to decide on our nominee. Some of these primaries are dragging out months and months and months, which leaves little time to raise money, unite and go out and defeat the Democrats.”