Romney's assault on Obama budget sidetracked by claims that he fixed poll

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Mitt Romney faced fresh distractions on several fronts last night, with a poll showing the Republican presidential contender's prospects sinking fast in the crucial state of Michigan, as well as claims that he fixed his victory in a straw poll and exaggerated his role in rescuing the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. The latest tribulations came on a day when Mr Romney had hoped to concentrate his fire at Barack Obama, who unveiled a 2013 federal budget that tied in with his campaign platform of boosting spending to sustain the recovery and raising taxes on the rich.

"We built this budget around the idea that our country has always done best when everyone gets a fair shot," said the President, detailing a draft budget that would allow Bush-era tax cuts for the rich to expire and is certain to reignite ideological battles on Capitol Hill. "Obama's budget is an insult to the American taxpayer," Mr Romney said in an email to supporters.

Separately, his campaign team sought to shut down a growing controversy over whether it essentially bought Mr Romney's victory in a straw poll at last weekend's Conservative Political Action Conference of conservative Republicans in Washington DC, by ferrying in supporters by bus and paying for them to participate. "You have to talk to the Romney campaign and how many tickets they bought. We've heard all sorts of things," noted the rival candidate Rick Santorum, whose wins in three primary states last week upended assumptions about Mr Romney's status as front-runner.

Mr Romney had hitherto paid little attention to straw polls but he urgently needed to repair the damage of last Tuesday, both at the CPAC and in the ultra-low turnout caucuses in Maine, where he prevailed by a thin margin over the libertarian Ron Paul. The Romney camp denied the CPAC vote was fixed. "Santorum has a history of making statements that aren't grounded in the truth," a spokesperson said.

With the race now wide open again, the focus is turning on Arizona and Michigan which vote in two weeks. By most reckonings, Mr Romney cannot afford to lose the latter, where is father was once a popular governor. A poll yesterday had Mr Santorum leading him in Michigan by 15 points.

Mr Romney also faces rumblings that he has been overstating his role in saving the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Games, where he was drafted in as CEO after a damaging bribery scandal. Robert Garff, chairman of the Salt Lake City Olympic committee, told the Washington Post there was never any question of the Games falling apart or being cancelled.