Mitt Romney brushed aside questions about his ability to appeal to Southern Republicans after his losses yesterday in the Mississippi and Alabama presidential primaries, saying he has won other states and garnered more delegates and votes than any of his rivals.
“If I’m a weak frontrunner, what does that make Newt Gingrich?” Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, said in an interview on Fox News. “Some who are very conservative may not be yet in my camp, but they will be when I become the nominee, when I face Barack Obama” in a general-election faceoff
He declined to weigh in on whether Gingrich, a former U.S. House speaker who has won just two primaries, should exit the race, saying such judgments were up to each candidate.
Supporters of Rick Santorum, who with victories in yesterday’s primaries now has won 10 contests, are pushing for Gingrich to exit to consolidate the opposition to Romney.
Gingrich has resisted such calls and was campaigning today in Illinois, site of a March 20 primary.
Romney, in the Fox interview, said a Bloomberg National poll released today showing him running ahead of Obama among independents debunks the refrain that he has trouble connecting with ordinary Americans.
In the survey, 49 percent of independents back Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who co-founded a private equity firm, while 41 percent support Obama.
The independents polled who said they back him “aren’t all wealthy people. These are average Americans,” he said.
Among all general-election voters in the survey, Romney and Obama each get 47 percent support.
With fundraisers in New York and Connecticut today, Romney also took time for a telephone conference call with Illinois voters in which he referred to skepticism he arouses among his party’s most conservative wing.
“I know that it’s popular today to say, ‘Oh, we don’t want someone who looks like he’s establishment,’” he said, adding, “I know the term ‘establishment’ frightens people.”
To allay such concerns, he noted endorsements he’s gotten from Republican leaders with strong conservative credentials, including Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia and former Attorney General John Ashcroft.
Romney said their backing should “give a pretty good indication that, ‘Perhaps the guy’s OK.’”
Romney aides today pressed their case that he is on an inexorable march to the Republican nomination as he continues to exceed his rivals in the hunt for convention delegates.
Though Romney ran third in Alabama and Mississippi, he garnered some delegates due to the proportion of the vote he received. And he won caucuses in Hawaii and American Samoa.
The results “actually increased Governor Romney’s delegate lead, while his opponents only moved closer to their date of mathematical elimination,” Romney political director Rich Beeson wrote in a memo sent to reporters.
“While Rick Santorum is taking a victory lap after Alabama and Mississippi, the fact remains that nothing has changed or advanced his chances of getting the Republican nomination,” Beeson said.
Santorum disputed such arguments as he campaigned today in Puerto Rico, site of a March 18 primary.
“If we keep winning races, eventually people are going to figure out that Governor Romney is not going to be the nominee,” he said, according to the Associated Press.