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Republican Voters Moving Toward Romney as Tempo of Primaries Accelerates

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, Missouri, Minnesota and Maine, 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 caucuses Feb. 4, days after his 14-point triumph in the Florida primary.

While some party loyalists and elected officials already support the former Massachusetts governor, his show of strength in recent contests demonstrates 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 the former U.S. House speaker’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.”

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.”

Tea Party

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

The polling 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,” said Armey.

Conservatives’ Conference

This week, Romney and his rivals plan to address party activists at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, where Tea Party favorite Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor and 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee, is scheduled to give the keynote address. The reception they give Romney will be a test of his support within the base of his party.

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’s 11 contests on March 6 include Georgia, which Gingrich represented in the House, while Texas is scheduled for April 3. Gingrich and his aides have been retooling his campaign, he told reporters Feb. 4 at a news conference in Las Vegas, without providing any details. He plans to campaign today in Golden, Colorado, and tonight in Bloomington, Minnesota.

Regaining Strength

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.”

Santorum spent yesterday campaigning across Minnesota, with stops at churches and at the mill that manufactures his trademark sweater vest embroidered with his campaign logo.

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,” he 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.

Five Contests

Following Nevada, there are five nomination contests in February, including caucuses in Maine that started over the weekend and will end later this week. Caucuses in Colorado and Minnesota on Feb. 7 are followed by primaries in Arizona and Michigan on Feb. 28. A non-binding primary will be held Feb. 7 in Missouri.

Many of the contests will award delegates on a proportional basis, rather than winner-take-all as was the case in Florida, giving Romney’s rivals an incentive to stay in the race.

The primaries at February’s end will garner the most attention because of the size of Michigan, the nation’s eighth- most-populous state, and Arizona, the 16th. Romney has potential advantages in both states.

Born in Michigan, he was raised in a Detroit suburb and his father, George, served as the state’s governor. Mitt Romney’s opposition to illegal immigration may help in Arizona. The U.S. Supreme Court is reviewing Arizona’s immigration law, which requires police to check the immigration status of anyone they arrest or stop and suspect may be in the U.S. illegally.

Restore Our Future, a group supporting Romney, has already purchased advertising time in both states.

Hefty Bank Account

At the end of 2011, Romney reported having $20 million in his campaign bank account, while Gingrich had $2.1 million, as well as $1.2 million in reported debts. In recognition of his trailing finances, Gingrich scaled back his campaign schedule in Nevada to make more time for fundraising calls.

Also working against Gingrich is a decrease in nationally televised debates, forums that helped boost his candidacy. So far in February, just one debate is scheduled, making it harder for Gingrich to keep his name in front of the media and voters.

To contact the reporters on this story: Lisa Lerer in Las Vegas, Nevada at llerer@bloomberg.net; John McCormick in Las Vegas, Nevada at jmccormick16@bloomberg.net

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

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