Mitt Romney struggles to win over GOP voters

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney appears Monday at a rally in Albion, Mich.

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Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney appears Monday at a rally in Albion, Mich.

Florida crowned Mitt Romney the unofficial Republican nominee last month. Now he's on the precipice of losing the race in Michigan, his native state.

What happened?

A better question might be: What didn't happen?

Romney failed to take his main opponent Rick Santorum seriously this month, giving the upstart room to breathe and time to win three state races in a row. Romney, plagued by gaffes, has failed to sell a consistent message about why he should be his party's nominee.

And in a volatile election season, Romney has also had the misfortune of being the victim of what one Republican called "tea party roulette," which has extended the primary race and kept him in the crosshairs.

"Mitt has had a bull's-eye on his back for something like two years now," said Allan Bense, a former Florida House speaker and co-chair of Romney's Florida campaign.

"Once the bull's-eye is on your back and the mainstream and others examine you and your issues and your history, it isn't pretty. Rick Santorum is learning that now. So I think we'll be okay once voters become educated about the other candidates."

Bense is among the more confident Romney Florida backers. They've watched with dismay as the Sunshine State's primary failed to be a deal-sealer for Romney in the race.

Last week, the campaign had to postpone a Daytona Beach fundraiser so that Romney could focus on campaigning in Michigan, a state he was expected to win handily.

Now he's essentially tied with Santorum. Polls suggest Romney should win in Arizona. Both states hold their primaries today. The two states set up the 10-state "Super Tuesday" contest on March 6.

After winning Florida, the Romney campaign didn't expect to be in so close a race with Santorum. But then Romney lost Colorado, Missouri and Minnesota a week later to Santorum.

Romney "needs to change the media narrative from loser to comeback," said Mike Murphy, a former Romney adviser. "Romney had a legitimate defeat in Colorado. They made a strategic mistake not competing in Missouri thinking the media wouldn't care."

Meantime, the Romney campaign has developed what appears to be a tense relationship with some conservative press outlets and the mainstream-media traveling press corps, where reporters have made much on Twitter of the fact that he hasn't granted them an interview in almost three weeks.

Murphy and others think the media are overhyping Romney's gaffes, such as his Friday statement that his wife owns "a couple of Cadillacs." In Michigan, Murphy said, people are happy when you're buying cars made in their state.

On Sunday, Romney got slammed in the media and blogosphere for telling an Associated Press reporter that he doesn't follow NASCAR closely but has "some great friends who are NASCAR team owners."

Romney's opponents seized on the Cadillac and NASCAR comments as examples of how he's an out-of-touch rich guy. That narrative intensified the day after Florida's Jan. 31 primary when Romney told CNN "I don't care about the very poor." Romney went on to explain that he's focused on the middle class, and he believes the very poor have adequate social services.

On the day he made the Cadillac comments at Ford Field in Detroit, Romney was talking tax cuts. But the national press focused more on the fact that the football stadium was largely empty and the attendance relatively small.

"Mitt Romney's Ford Field Fumble," ABC News' blog called it.

All of it points to struggles with messaging by the Romney campaign. Its messenger-in-chief, Stuart Stevens, didn't return calls or emails. Earlier this month, after Romney's Florida win, Stevens basked in positive press accounts about heading the campaign.

Now, some Republicans are privately wondering if Stevens is the best consultant to help Romney win with grass roots Republicans.

Murphy, who advised Romney in his 2002 Massachusetts governor's race, declined to comment on Stevens. Romney's 2008 adviser, Alex Castellanos, also declined to comment.

Both were featured in a December POLITICO piece after each tweeted a snarky comment about Stevens. Both said they like Romney and don't want to undermine his campaign. Both say they don't want to work for the campaign.

Still, it's tough for them to watch what has happened to Romney since he won Florida.

"The Mitt Romney I know is a transformative figure," Castellanos said. "He fixed the Olympics in Salt Lake City. He made Staples what it is today. But I don't see enough of that candidate."

Part of the reason for that is the campaign and a political committee supporting Romney have decided to spend relatively more time running negative ads about Romney's opponents rather than running positive spots about Romney. Right now, they're framing Santorum as a big-spending creature of Washington.

At the same time, a bloc of conservative Republicans just don't seem to want Romney, although most polls have consistently shown he's the best Republican to match up against President Barack Obama.

"It's tea party roulette," said Republican consultant Alex Patton of Gainesville.

Despite all of Romney's problems, though, he's still the odds-on favorite to win his party's nomination. It just will take some time. And some work.

"Nothing fixes all these problems like winning. So he better win," Murphy said. "He doesn't have to win everything. But he has to win a lot."

Mitt Romney struggles to win over GOP voters 02/27/12 [Last modified: Monday, February 27, 2012 10:10pm]

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