Romney adopts survivor's stance

January 10, 2008 6:55:51 PM PST
A week ago, Mitt Romney had a grand vision of a 50-state election strategy that would catapult him from Iowa and New Hampshire across the nation and on to the Republican presidential nomination. Now, he's adopted a survivor's stance, hoping to win in just one place, Michigan, and then carry on with a campaign far more practical in scope.

That means pulling down television ads in South Carolina and Florida, shifting staff to Michigan, which votes Tuesday, and scrapping plans to campaign here Friday so he can dash back to the Rust Belt.

Aides said that if the former Massachusetts governor finishes first or second in Michigan and polls show him still lagging in South Carolina he will likely skip campaigning here before the Jan. 19 primary. Instead, Romney will focus on Nevada - which votes the same day - and then concentrate on Florida, which will award 57 delegates when it votes Jan. 29.

Victories in those states would set the table for a decisive vote on Feb. 5, when 21 states will award 1,038 Republican delegates in what effectively has become a national primary.

A total of 1,191 are needed for the GOP nomination.

"We're trying to be flexible," said Ron Kaufman, a senior campaign adviser. "We're being smart about how we handle victory and how we handle winning these silvers." Romney, a former Olympics head, compares his second-place finishes to silver medals.

Following second-place finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, and a little-noticed win in the Wyoming caucuses, Romney has accumulated more votes than any of his rivals for the GOP nomination. He also is second in the delegate count, trailing former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee 31-19.

But fairly or unfairly, the one-time Iowa and New Hampshire front-runner also has been tagged with questions about whether he can win the big one. That has prompted him and his staff to adopt the tactic used by Huckabee and fellow contenders, Arizona Sen. John McCain and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

Each has picked and chosen where they will compete, defining victory in their own terms.

In Iowa, McCain and Giuliani enjoyed far higher name recognition than Romney, but his frequent visits, recruitment of a top-notch staff and decision to spend more than $7 million on campaign ads prompted both rivals to essentially pull out of the state.

When Huckabee staged a surprise win in Iowa, propelled by support from evangelical Christians, it was Romney who faced questions about remaining in the race - not McCain or Giuliani.

Similarly, Romney's backyard loss to McCain in New Hampshire renewed questions about whether he should stay in the race, even though Huckabee failed to get a bounce from his Iowa victory and Giuliani finished fourth with a paltry 9 percent of the vote.

McCain also was cast as the candidate on the rebound, despite accumulating only seven delegates - almost two-thirds fewer than Romney.

That outcome had a profound effect on Romney.

Before the primary he said, "This is not a one- or two-state campaign; this is a 50-state campaign." Afterward, he adopted a more modest approach.

He sought to create a firewall in Michigan by turning on the local charm as he returned to his native state, where his father served three terms as governor.

"I will commit to you that if I'm president of the United States, I will not rest if Michigan is in a one-state recession. If I'm president, the one-state recession is over," he said Wednesday in Grand Rapids.

Feeling his campaign had become too sprawling and reliant on TV ads, the former businessman decided to instead focus his enterprise on a single market: Michigan.

When he left New Hampshire, 11 Boston staffers accompanied him on the flight to Michigan, ready to take up residence for a long weekend of work. Romney also decided to speak from the heart about his concern for the state, hoping free media coverage of his remarks would be more influential than paid ads.

In addition, Romney scrapped a visit to Greenville, S.C., on Wednesday, as well as appearances Friday in Charleston and Columbia, so he could devote the time to Michigan.

Nonetheless, Michigan presents numerous challenges.

McCain has the momentum, the backing of a network of hard-core supporters who helped him win the primary in 2000, as well as a built-in advantage because independents can vote in the primary. The maverick candidate attracts them like no other Republican.

Meanwhile, Huckabee can't be underestimated in the state; the former Southern Baptist preacher could appeal to religious conservatives on the western part of Michigan, and his economic populism pitch could resonate in Reagan Republican country outside Detroit.

At the very least, Huckabee's presence in the race will split the vote with Romney, making McCain difficult to beat. That's exactly what happened in New Hampshire, and Michigan could prove a repeat.

Mindful that voters viewed his campaign as the most negative in New Hampshire, Romney is focusing his TV presence in Michigan on himself and his vision for the country. Direct mail, which included criticism of his rivals over immigration and taxes, ended a week ago in part to save money.

Instead, a positive two-minute ad shown in the final hours of the New Hampshire primary is being trimmed to 30- and 60-second spots for Michigan.