As Super Tuesday looms, GOP nomination battle heats up
The battle for the Republican presidential nomination heads into a potentially decisive phase over the next two weeks with contests in 13 states that could finally answer some of the questions that have defined the race.
Starting in Michigan on Feb. 28, and in several of the Super Tuesday contests a week later, the long presumed front-runner Mitt Romney and the surging Rick Santorum will face each other in what will amount to one-on-one match-ups, with only limited engagement from the other remaining candidates, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Rep. Ron Paul.
Newt Gingrich still may pull a come from behind surprise on Super Tuesday but for now his campaign is struggling. Ron Paul of Texas seems to be maintaining his steady momentum as many fears of his being another " Perot Factor" increase among republican pundits.
Those races give Romney a chance to finally put to rest the question of whether he can defeat a concerted conservative challenge and solidify his claim that he is the party's nominee. So far, Romney has a mixed record of winning over the most conservative elements of the party, but has been able to win in states where those voters have splintered their support among multiple candidates.
The upcoming races offer Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, a chance to show what he and other conservatives have long claimed: that a moderate like the former Massachusetts governor cannot beat one of them in a head-to-head matchup. They point to Santorum's sweep of three contests Feb. 7, which has propelled his surge since.
"Next Tuesday's election is pivotal for Mitt Romney," said GOP consultant Mike Dennehy. "Michigan is really the battleground for the future of the nomination."
Paul will also get a clean matchup with Romney on Super Tuesday in Virginia, where only those two candidates met the stringent qualifications for a place on the ballot.
The coming calendar poses the biggest problem to Gingrich, the onetime conservative alternative to Romney who has dropped in the polls and has not been able to raise enough money to run a national campaign.
Gingrich is largely looking past contests in Arizona, Michigan and Washington state and instead focusing his efforts on Super Tuesday contests in Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Georgia, his home state. He will find competition in all of them from Santorum and Romney.
GOP pollster Jon McHenry said two of those states appear to be particularly important.
"Ohio and Georgia strike me as the most important Super Tuesday states," McHenry said. "They're large states; one is a Deep South, appeal-to-the-base state, and the other is the quintessential swing state. And the timing means you can't just camp out there and win by showing up."
Romney has been building organizations in all the Super Tuesday states, announcing slates of elected officials, key party activists and local business leaders backing him, and he hopes to take advantage of their political networks on the ground. He will also probably have a money advantage, as his campaign and a super PAC supporting him are vastly outspending his opponents. This could be particularly critical at a time when TV ads take on an even greater role.
Although his opponents may point to individual states and moments in the race as evidence of Romney's vulnerability, his campaign hopes its all-around performance will erase any doubt that he is the clear front-runner.
"It's no longer possible to focus all your energies on a single state and mobilize a small core group to show well in that state," said GOP consultant Fred Malek. "Rather, it requires a broader appeal, and I predict Romney wins big over next two weeks."
Romney's less-well-funded opponents, meanwhile, will have to pick their spots, both on the air and on the ground.
Over the past several days, Santorum has made campaign stops in Washington, Michigan, Idaho, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Ohio and, on Sunday, in Georgia. He is spending Tuesday in Arizona, and his campaign is airing ads in Arizona, Ohio, Georgia, Oklahoma and Tennessee.
Santorum's advisers said his schedule is a reflection of his rising poll numbers and fundraising efforts, both of which would probably accelerate with another win before Super Tuesday.
"We've been in Washington. We've been in Idaho," Santorum spokesman Hogan Gidley said. "We're running a national campaign."
But, he added, "in general, states where the Republican electorate is more moderate are less good for us, and states where the electorate is more conservative are good for us."
About the only states not on Santorum's radar are the two Northeastern Super Tuesday states, Massachusetts and Vermont. Romney is a heavy favorite in both as the former governor of Massachusetts.
Gingrich's campaign, meanwhile, has thus far shown it will focus on Super Tuesday – Georgia, in particular, but also other Southern states – and has largely skipped the three contests preceding it in Arizona, Michigan and Washington. Gingrich has done well in the South thus far, winning the South Carolina primary and performing well in the panhandle of Florida.
Gingrich began a two-day swing through Georgia on Friday and visited Oklahoma on Monday. He will return to Georgia after Wednesday's Arizona debate and may spend Feb. 28 in his home state rather than in Arizona or Michigan.
During an appearance last week in California, whose primary is not till June, Gingrich said that he wouldn't dismiss Michigan entirely, largely because of the rules there governing how delegates will be awarded. Even a modest showing in the polls would give Gingrich some delegates.
By largely skipping the pre-Super Tuesday states, though, Gingrich may allow Santorum to enter Super Tuesday as the consensus alternative to Romney.
"Gingrich can't allow this to continue and still raise money to pay for coffee – much less a campaign," said GOP strategist Dan Hazelwood.
Asked in Los Angeles last week whether he has miscalculated by ignoring the pre-Super Tuesday states, Gingrich demurred.
"This thing has had a wild rhythm; it resembles riding Space Mountain at Disney," Gingrich said. "I've been the front-runner twice; I suspect I will be a front-runner again."
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