Romney backers in Congress second-guessing campaign

Supporters of Mitt Romney on Capitol Hill are second-guessing his campaign strategy after he got beaten soundly in thee contests this past week.

They say the setback in Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado put more pressure on Romney to win decisively in Michigan and Arizona on Feb. 28 to avert a messy and prolonged fight for the nomination.

Romney was declared the winner Saturday of Maine’s caucuses, but a new survey released last week from Public Policy Polling shows former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) ahead of Romney by 15 points nationally. Santorum’s campaign also announced Friday that his winning trifecta had boosted fundraising.

As a result, Romney may have to divert some of his resources from Super Tuesday states to concentrate on earlier states that were thought to be slam dunks, some supporters say.

Rob Collins, a GOP strategist at Purple Strategies, suggested Romney should not overlook states but instead run an aggressive campaign in all primary states to show he has the organization and stamina to defeat President Obama in the general election.

“He’s running as the one who has the most ability to win the national campaign,” said Collins. “If he has the ability, I encourage him to use the ability.

“He has the infrastructure and the talent to do it, to run a national campaign. He always talks about electability and running a 50-state campaign. Turn it on and let’s go,” he added.

Romney’s campaign has spun last Tuesday’s losses as an incidental bump in the road to the nomination. But some of his staunchest backers in Congress worry he may have given former Sen. Santorum a crucial opening.

Losing Colorado, a state Romney won by a huge margin in 2008, and by double digits in Minnesota and Missouri, sets up Michigan as a hinge for his campaign before Super Tuesday, which is March 6.

“I think it was a big mistake to ignore those states this week,” said one senator who endorsed Romney. “Now you have three weeks of nothing except for Michigan and Arizona.”

The Romney backer expressed concern that the lull in primary schedule before Super Tuesday will give Santorum a chance to milk his victory by raising money and drawing media attention.

Another senator who supports Romney said he “maybe should have spent more money” ahead of the Feb. 7 contests and suspects Romney’s campaign advisors have the same regrets in hindsight.

“Looking back at it, they probably wish they spent more,” he said.

The senator, however, said there were reasons for Romney to curtail his commitment to Colorado and Minnesota.

“Those are caucuses which bring out the most conservative voters, who are not really Romney people,” the lawmaker said.

But some GOP strategists think that justification is undermined by the fact that Romney won both states in 2008. Romney carried Colorado with 60 percent of the vote and Minnesota with 41 percent that year.

The Romney campaign downplayed the importance of Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri in a memo circulated to the press on Tuesday.

“No delegates will be awarded on February 7 — Colorado and Minnesota hold caucuses with nonbinding preference polls and the Missouri primary is purely a beauty contest,” Rich Beeson, Romney’s political director, wrote.

A spokeswoman for Romney’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment Friday afternoon.

Some Romney backers in Congress worry the media splash Santorum made this week will help him build up momentum that could be tough to squelch by the date of the Michigan and Arizona primaries, where Romney is favored.

Michigan and Arizona are scheduled for Feb 28. While Romney won Maine's contest Saturday night, it is seen as having less impact in the nomination’s calculus.

Santorum’s campaign raised $250,000 overnight after his victories, with donors waiting on hold up to 20 minutes to make a contribution. The strong showing gives new impetus to wealthy donors such as Foster

Friess, who has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to a super-PAC supporting Santorum.

Whit Ayres, a GOP strategist and pollster who did work for a PAC formed to support former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman’s (R) presidential bid, said Michigan now emerges as a potential make-or-break state.

“This sets up Michigan in particular as a very significant state. Santorum is going to spend a lot of time there. If Romney holds his own and holds his own comfortably, a lot of handwringing in the Romney camp and the Republican establishment should cease,” he said.

Romney has double-digit poll leads in both states and has strong appeal in Michigan, where he grew up and his father George Romney served as governor. Santorum will focus on Michigan, where his blue-collar roots could have more appeal with voters.

Ayres said it made sense for Romney’s campaign to prioritize its resources to larger states that hold large numbers of delegates but the decision can be criticized in hindsight.

“I’m sure in hindsight the Romney forces wish they put more money in Colorado. I don’t think anyone expected him to lose Colorado,” he said.