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Republicans Move Toward Romney as Pace of Primaries Picks Up

Republican voters are beginning to coalesce around the presidential candidacy of front-runner Mitt Romney even as his opponents vow to continue their campaigns into a series of contests this month and beyond.

Republicans will cast ballots this week in Colorado (BEESCO), Missouri, Minnesota (MBASMN) and Maine (STTLME), all states where Romney has a financial and organizational advantage over his remaining three opponents. He won a majority of the vote in the Nevada (BEESNV) caucuses Feb. 4, days after his 14-point triumph in the Florida (MBASMO) primary.

While some party loyalists and elected officials already support the former Massachusetts governor, his strength in recent contests shows that socially and fiscally conservative voters -- long critical of his ideological credentials -- are starting to accept his march toward the nomination.

Newt Gingrich had what was likely to be in the final analysis his best moment in South Carolina,” Tea Party leader and former House Majority Leader Dick Armey said on CNN’s “State of the Union” yesterday, referring to Gingrich’s Jan. 21 win. “We are not going to get a reliable small-government conservative out of this nominating process.”

Attack on Santorum

Romney’s campaign today began an offensive against another of his primary rivals, Rick Santorum, as the former Pennsylvania senator gunned for a strong showing in tomorrow’s Minnesota caucuses. Santorum delivered a speech hammering Romney for having backed a Massachusetts health-care plan that required state residents to purchase medical insurance, and Romney’s team deployed former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty to try to tarnish Santorum’s credibility with fiscal conservatives.

“He clearly has been part of the big-spending establishment in Congress and in the influence-peddling industry that surrounds Congress,” Pawlenty told reporters in a conference call today, detailing Santorum’s support for earmarks -- the targeted spending lawmakers use to steer federal money to the districts and states they represent.

“Rick has been holding himself out as the perfect conservative or the only real conservative in the race,” Pawlenty said. “If you look at his record, it’s not a perfect conservative record by a long shot.”

Won’t Predict Victory

Pawlenty wouldn’t predict a Romney victory in Minnesota, whose caucuses he said typically draw low turnout and voters who “gravitate toward the most conservative candidate -- real or perceived.”

Romney’s own record is “not perfect, but conservative,” Pawlenty said. “Mitt will be competitive, but it’s hard to tell who’s going to be the top of that pack.”

Gingrich also took a shot at Romney’s record on health care during a rally today for several hundred people in Golden, Colorado. The former U.S. House speaker drew parallels between the law Romney signed as governor of Massachusetts and President Barack Obama’s health-care overhaul legislation.

“We’re in a situation where we need fundamental change,” Gingrich said. He said he has revised his campaign strategy to more forcefully set himself apart from party moderates.

Gingrich’s Colorado spokesman, Tom Lucero, a former University of Colorado regent and Larimer County Republican chairman, spoke optimistically about tomorrow’s caucuses.

“I love our chances,” Lucero said in an interview. “People here are trying to make a decision between Gingrich and Santorum -- anybody but Romney.”

Nevada Breakdowns

In Nevada, Romney, 64, won almost every voting group, including those traditionally skeptical of his candidacy such as Tea Party supporters, according to a survey of voters outside polling places before they cast their ballots. Among self- described “very conservative” voters, 51 percent supported him at the polls, as did 48 percent of evangelical Christians.

The survey also showed he won support from three-quarters of those who listed the ability to beat Obama in November’s general election as the most important candidate quality for them, a group that was 44 percent of the electorate.

“We would rather have a Republican president that’s not fully the guy we adore wanting our affections than a Democrat president who despises us,” Armey said.

Gingrich, 68, dismissed the Nevada results, saying contests in the South will put him in a “very competitive” position.

“Our goal is to get to Super Tuesday where we’re in much more favorable territory,” he said yesterday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” program. “We believe by the time Texas is over, we’ll be very, very competitive in delegate count.”

Super Tuesday

Super Tuesday’s 11 contests on March 6 include Georgia (BEESGA), which Gingrich represented in the House, while Texas (BEESTX) is scheduled for April 3. Gingrich failed to meet the requirements to appear on Virginia’s primary ballot that day and has now dropped a court bid to be added.

Santorum, 53, insisted that his candidacy would regain strength. He beat Romney by 34 votes in the lead-off Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3 and has seen his support drop since then.

“We’re going to show improvement,” he said on “Fox News Sunday” yesterday. “This race is a long, long way from being over.”

U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas, who came in third in Nevada after campaigning heavily in the state, also said that voters are still making up their minds.

“There’s a large number of people who are looking for another option,” Paul, 76, said on ABC’s “This Week” yesterday. “Romney doesn’t satisfy a lot of people.”

With all Nevada precincts reporting, Romney had just over 50 percent of the vote and Gingrich had 21 percent, followed by Paul with almost 19 percent and Santorum with 10 percent, according to an Associated Press tally.

Following Nevada, there are five nomination contests in February, including caucuses in Maine that started over the weekend and will end later this week. Tomorrow’s caucuses in Colorado and Minnesota are followed by primaries in Arizona and Michigan on Feb. 28. A non-binding primary will also be held tomorrow in Missouri.

To contact the reporters on this story: Lisa Lerer in Las Vegas, Nevada at llerer@bloomberg.net; Jennifer Oldham in Golden, Colorado at joldham1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeanne Cummings at jcummings21@bloomberg.net

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