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Mitt Romney: Trying to Buy Himself the Presidency...


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February 2, 2008

Romney Maps a Strategy for Survival


DENVER After devoting two years and more than $35 million of his money trying to win his party s nomination for the presidency, Mitt Romney and his advisers face the possibility that his effort could end with the nominating contests on Tuesday.

Senator John McCain of Arizona has won a series of major primaries and landed big-name endorsements as he seeks to present himself as the Republican Party s putative nominee.

Operating in survival mode, Mr. Romney s circle of advisers has come up with a detailed road map to try to salvage his campaign. The plan is complete with a new infusion of cash from Mr. Romney, a long-term strategy intended to turn the campaign into a protracted delegate fight and a reframing of the race as a one-on-one battle for the future of the party that seeks to sound the alarm among conservatives about Mr. McCain.

The advisers have drawn up a list of states, dividing and ranking them into those considered relatively easy and inexpensive targets, along with a broader grouping of more costly battlegrounds where the advisers hope that Mr. Romney can be competitive.

Some states like Arizona and Arkansas, the home states of Mr. McCain and Mike Huckabee, respectively, are largely written off.

The question is whether the planning, along with the campaign s one trump card, the candidate s vast wealth, can overcome the growing sense of inevitability that has begun to attach itself to Mr. McCain.

Complicating the outlook, Mr. Romney s campaign has been racked by infighting over advertising strategy between some senior advisers, including some consultants who joined the campaign after leaving Mr. McCain s.

Polls in many major primary states on Tuesday, including California, the linchpin of Mr. Romney s strategy, where he is spending $1.7 million on advertising, according to a rival campaign, show Mr. McCain with a comfortable lead. He also appears to hold significant edges in New York and New Jersey, winner-take-all states where many former backers of Rudolph W. Giuliani have joined the McCain camp.

The endorsement by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California boosts Mr. McCain there, and the national news media buzz contributes to the air of a coronation.

I don t think anyone should write Mitt Romney s obituary yet, said Todd Harris, a political consultant who worked on Fred D. Thompson s campaign. He can be a compelling candidate with a ton of money. But at some point if he s not winning, the entire rationale for his campaign becomes that he is a well-funded candidate who s not John McCain, and that s not enough.

Another unforeseen complication is the funeral on Saturday of Gordon B. Hinckley, president and prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in Salt Lake City. The funeral, taking Mr. Romney off the trail on the most important weekend of campaigning so far, will draw attention once again to Mr. Romney s Mormon faith.

His advisers point to some signs of hope in an election cycle in which conventional wisdom has often been turned upside down. They say they are starting to see a groundswell of opposition to Mr. McCain among conservative leaders, as well as at the grass roots, especially on talk radio.

The day after Mr. Romney s loss to Mr. McCain in Florida, his aides said, the campaign set a record for one-day online contributions, almost $400,000.

Mr. Romney s advisers are also convinced that their mantra on the economy and bringing change to Washington and the economy remains compelling.

The campaign s director of strategy, Alex Gage, sent a memorandum to supporters on Thursday that highlighted exit poll data from the previous nominating contests, saying just a few percentage points of support to Mr. Romney from conservatives would swing the nomination to him.

Besides California, the campaign has also bought airtime for commercials in other states as part of a significant buy, advisers said, although they declined to say where. A rival campaign also reported that Mr. Romney has bought nearly $350,000 in advertising time to run nationally on the Fox News Channel.

Alex Castellanos, a media strategist for Mr. Romney, said regardless of the delegate count, the winner in California would have the momentum to move on.

California s the one to watch, Mr. Castellanos said.

Rob Stutzman, a senior adviser for the California campaign, said the Republican electorate there was traditionally quite conservative. Mr. Stutzman predicted that Mr. McCain would run into problems because of his moderate stance on illegal immigration.

The immigration vulnerability is amplified in California for McCain, he said.

The Romney campaign has had four paid staff members in California since last summer and has been making calls throughout the state since the beginning of January, when absentee voting began.

The field operations are focused on Congressional districts where it believes that organization can have productive effects. The state is set up so that each district is worth the same number of delegates, no matter how many Republicans are in it. A small organizing effort could swing a district.

The Romney campaign is banking on winning Utah, with its heavy concentration of Mormons.

Beyond that, the campaign is also focused on picking off the handful of states holding caucuses or state conventions on Tuesday. The campaign says some minimal organization it has had at least one paid worker in almost every Feb. 5 state since the fall and spending can produce results. The states include Colorado, Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota and West Virginia.

Adding Alaska, where Mr. Romney s son Josh has been dispatched, more than 250 delegates are at stake in this first group of states out of the more than 1,000 delegates up for grabs on Tuesday.

The campaign has then drawn up a broader list of battlegrounds where it believes it can be competitive, including Georgia, Illinois, Missouri and Tennessee. Advertising will most likely be focused on those primary states.

The most serious obstacle in many places is Mr. Huckabee, who continues to pull social conservative voters from Mr. Romney.

The more the Romney strategy hinges on picking up red states, the bigger a factor Mike Huckabee is going to be, Mr. Harris said.

In the face of difficult odds, Mr. Romney s advisers said, he had been the individual raising their morale whenever it sagged. After his weary advisers dozed on the flight from Florida to California on Wednesday, Mr. Romney gathered them at the front of the plane.

Trying to lighten the mood, he turned to Cindy Gillespie, a senior adviser who worked with him in rescuing the scandal-ridden 2002 Winter Olympic Games, and said: We ve been here before, haven t we? Salt Lake was always three steps forward, two steps back.

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