Romney braced for strong challenge from Santorum in three-state contest

 

Mitt Romney is facing fresh turbulence on what is meant to be a glide-path to the Republican Party nomination amid signs of a revitalised challenge from social conservative Rick Santorum and new questions about his strategy to unseat Barack Obama.

Even before voting began in a trio of states holding caucus and primary contests last night, a top aide to Mr Romney said Mr Santorum was "certain" to prevail in at least one of them. Polls had indicated a possible win for the former Pennsylvania senator in Minnesota and at least second place in Missouri and Colorado.

None of the races yesterday were binding but any hiccup in momentum will not be welcomed in the Romney camp. The races in Missouri and Minnesota were also the campaign's first test since Iowa in the Midwest, a region of swing states that will be a crucial battleground in November.

While the Romney camp has this week redirected most of its fire from Newt Gingrich to Mr Santorum, aides insist they are not overly worried. "Rick Santorum is a nice guy, but I knew him before he was a virgin," one top advisor told The Independent, intimating that much of what the former senator campaigns on now, including cutting the deficit, by no means squares with his past record on Capitol Hill.

While Mr Romney remains clearly in pole position, he still has not shown he is connecting as well as he should with the party's grassroots. And conservatives are still unconvinced of his stance on social issues like abortion.

"I don't call myself a Romney fan, but I feel that I don't have much choice but to support him at this point," Randy Breitenbach, 44, the owner of a machine tool distributor, said at a rally for the ex-governor here in Denver. "I think Romney is still trying to figure out what he believes and I think at this point in his life he ought to know."

At his rally appearances, Mr Romney makes scant mention of his rivals, focusing his criticism instead on Mr Obama. A scratchy campaigner who sometimes speaks so fast his words are swallowed, he has at least began to stir large crowds into chanting their disapproval of the President's record.

But the campaign faces new difficulties, including details of a Washington Post poll this week that showed Mr Romney lagging in likeability and being easily beaten by Mr Obama in a hypothetical match-up today.

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