Mistakes, I've made a few: Romney apologises for misfiring campaign

Republican frontrunner accuses rival Santorum of dirty tricks as Super Tuesday draws near

Mitt Romney yesterday offered a mea culpa for his stumbles in the Republican nomination race, which supporters had hoped he would have wrapped up by now; instead it threatens to last into the spring or early summer.

He made the remarks at his campaign HQ in Michigan where he was locked last night in a tight primary battle with his social conservative foe, Rick Santorum. That Mr Romney, who staged an eve-of-voting rally here in Royal Oak with the musician Kid Rock, risked defeat in the state he grew up in was itself an indication of his weakness. "The candidate sometimes makes some mistakes," he told reporters. "I'm trying to do better and work harder and make sure that we get our message across."

While much of the criticism of Mr Romney is directed at his woodenness and his propensity to drop elitist-sounding bombs that risk alienating many voters, there is also concern that his top aides have mismanaged him, something Mr Romney also sought to put to rest. "I'm very pleased with the campaign, its organisation," he said.

As the votes were counted last night here in Michigan and also in Arizona, there was little time for the candidates to draw breath. Immediately around the corner are caucuses in Washington State this weekend and then contests in 10 states on 6 March, dubbed "Super Tuesday" because so many delegates for the nomination will be at stake.

But yesterday it was all about the tension in Michigan. Mr Romney lashed out at Mr Santorum for playing "dirty tricks" by urging Democrats in recorded telephone calls to take part in the Republican primary, which is permitted by Michigan law, and to vote for him as a way to block the path for Mr Romney whom they might regard as the more dangerous opponent to Mr Obama in the general election. "It's outrageous to see Rick Santorum team up with the Obama people and go out after union labour in Detroit and get them to vote against me," Mr Romney railed, insisting that "we don't want Democrats deciding who our nominee is going to be".

The task remains for Mr Romney to allay doubts that he can assemble a wide enough coalition of Republican voters, including Tea Party conservatives, to win the nomination and take on Barack Obama in November.

Even the most ardent Romney fans will often admit he frustrates them. Russ Johnson, 73, who came to his rally in Royal Oak, argued he should stop pandering and running away from his success and his wealth. "He would be a much better candidate if he would just stand up and be proud of all the success he has instead of reaching down to the lowest common denominator," he said.

Aides who are travelling with Mr Romney in Michigan alternate between defensiveness and defiance when challenged about the things that have gone wrong. Top of the list was a speech on the economy delivered last Friday to 1,200 guests in a Detroit sports stadium that seats 60,000. A misfire of the first order because of the bad optics, it was the fault, aides insist, of the Detroit Economic Club that hosted it.

As for the complaint that Mr Santorum encouraged Democrats to engage in "tactical voting" yesterday, Mr Romney might recall voting himself in the 1992 Democratic primary in Massachusetts for Paul Tsongas; because he wanted Bill Clinton knocked out.