Romney Racks Up Delegates Even as Campaign Underscores Weakness

Mitt Romney is winning in math and losing in chemistry.

The former Massachusetts governor’s 1-point victory in Ohio and wins in five other Super Tuesday states yesterday added at least 212 delegates to his quest for the 1,144 he needs to capture the Republican Party presidential nomination, according to the Associated Press.

Yet exit polls show he isn’t connecting with voters who form the base of his party, including Southerners motivated by religious issues and anti-tax Tea Party activists, or the independents he needs to reach out to in the general election. Among those who described themselves as “strong supporters of the Tea Party movement,” Romney drew 32 percent compared to 41 percent for former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, a CNN Ohio exit poll showed.

“Romney has been having trouble closing the deal largely with the authentic conservative base of the party,” said Greg Mueller, a Republican public relations executive who was an aide to Steve Forbes’s 2000 presidential campaign.

Less-Friendly Terrain

The challenge may intensify as the race stretches into March, when several southern states that are less-friendly terrain for Romney hold contests -- including the next primaries March 13 in Alabama and Mississippi -- that could create an opening for Santorum, who won Oklahoma, North Dakota and Tennessee last night.

“I don’t have a math problem -- I know we won at least three states tonight, and I know that adds up pretty nicely,” said John Brabender, Santorum’s top political adviser. “If conservatives and Tea Party supporters unite behind Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney will not be the nominee.”

At Romney’s Boston campaign headquarters today, top strategists argued his latest victories yielded unforgiving math for his rivals that virtually guarantees Romney will eventually collect the 1,144 delegates necessary to claim the nomination, even if it takes weeks or months and Romney loses the popular vote in several forthcoming contests.

Romney will consistently place second in those elections and pick up delegates, said one aide, speaking on condition of anonymity without authorization to detail campaign strategy.

Delegate Gap

Conversely, Romney’s rivals would have to win overwhelming majorities of the remaining delegates up for grabs -- 65 percent for Santorum and 70 percent for Gingrich, far outpacing their performances in contests so far -- to have a chance at the nomination, another strategist said. Romney must win 48 percent of the remaining delegates, and has earned 53 percent of those available in contests so far, said the second top aide.

Still, chemistry remains a challenge. Another adviser said Romney has ground to make up with lower-income voters and those who are struggling economically, and is working to establish a stronger connection with them.

Among the 10 contests that ended on Super Tuesday, Romney won 6, Santorum took 3 and former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich captured his home state of Georgia. Romney carried states from his home of Massachusetts to Alaska, where he finished 4 percentage points ahead of Santorum. While Romney pocketed the most delegates, Santorum picked up at least 84, Gingrich collected at least 72, and Texas Representative Ron Paul scored 22 delegates, according to AP.

Wyoming Contest

Romney took an early lead in Wyoming, where delegates are being selected at county conventions that end on March 10.

Going into the day, the Romney campaign was upbeat about Ohio and tightening public opinion polls in Tennessee raised the possibility that a win there might quell questions about his appeal in a region that’s a party bedrock.

Santorum’s 9-point victory in Tennessee achieved the reverse, underscoring Romney’s weaknesses in border and southern states. The former governor also lost to Santorum in the caucuses of North Dakota, a state Romney won in 2008.

“There’s breathing room to live if you’re Santorum or Gingrich,” said Mueller.

Romney’s aides argue his latest wins reflect a candidate broadening his appeal across crucial voting blocs that will hold sway in the general election, including Tea Party voters and those anxious about the economy.

Weak Points

They also underlined his weak points. Romney lost to Santorum among working-class voters, those who earn less than $50,000 annually and those who never attended college, according to an Ohio exit poll conducted by CNN.

He won among Ohioans who described themselves as “moderate” or “somewhat conservative” on social issues such as abortion, and lost to those who consider themselves “very conservative,” drawing backing from 26 percent of them compared with Santorum’s 53 percent.

With Santorum and Gingrich both vowing to stay in the race, Romney will be denied the chance to pivot to the task of improving his standing with independent voters -- a group that could be crucial if he wins the primary and takes on President Barack Obama in the November general election.

His campaign advisers said the nominating process has damaged his standing with that group.

“When this primary is over -- and people have had their heads knocked in by one another, that’s just the nature of a hard-fought campaign -- we hit the reset button, and the campaign begins anew with a different opponent,” Eric Fehrnstrom, a senior adviser, told reporters March 4. “And we’ll be able to draw sharp contrasts with the president and the president alone, not worrying about our competition, and focusing solely on him. It will be a different race at that point, and the numbers will move again.”

Mixed Messages

Until then, Romney will have to continue to make overtures to core Republicans, many of whom are motivated by opposition to abortion rights and gay marriage, topics that don’t coincide with the economic issues that are top concerns for independent voters.

Last night’s results opened a new phase of the contest that could become a three-month, nationwide delegate trek.

Alabama is home to 50 delegates and Mississippi to 40, although the states’ rules for awarding them make it unlikely that Romney, Santorum or Gingrich would be able to collect all of them given the potentially splintered vote tallies.

Santorum’s Math Problem

Josh Putnam, a campaigns and elections specialist at Davidson College in Davidson, North Carolina, said unless Santorum could win 50 percent or more of the vote in the remainder of the contests, “he’s not really going to be able to get to 1,144, nor is Gingrich.”

Even if Santorum can do so, “he only barely gets over 1,144, so it’s just really tough,” Putnam added.

Romney’s allies who operate Restore Our Future, a super- political action committee that can raise and spend unlimited amounts on Romney’s behalf, are already airing advertisements in Alabama and Mississippi. Winning Our Future, a super-PAC backing Gingrich, is also showing commercials in the two states. Neither Santorum nor his friendly super-PAC, the Red, White and Blue Fund, has commercials airing in those states.

Beyond those Southern primaries, the calendar in the next few weeks holds few opportunities for either challenger to topple Romney.

April, when a number of states with large delegate rosters hold their contests, may be more decisive.

“When it switches to April, and we’re talking about Wisconsin, and New York, Maryland and those kinds of places, those are not areas that are good for Gingrich or Santorum, so you start to see the numbers really rack up,” Putnam said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Julie Hirschfeld Davis in Boston at jdavis159@bloomberg.net

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

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