(Updates vote count in fourth paragraph after Sweater Vest sub-headline. For more 2012 campaign news, see ELECT.)
Feb. 6 (Bloomberg) -- Republican voters are beginning to coalesce around the presidential candidacy of front-runner Mitt Romney even as his opponents vow to continue their campaigns into a series of contests this month and beyond.
Republicans will cast ballots this week in Colorado, Missouri, Minnesota and Maine, all states where Romney has a financial and organizational advantage over his remaining three opponents. He won a majority of the vote in the Nevada caucuses Feb. 4, days after his 14-point triumph in the Florida primary.
While some party loyalists and elected officials already support Romney, his show of strength in recent contests demonstrates that socially and fiscally conservative voters -- long critical of his ideological credentials -- are starting to accept his march toward the nomination.
“Newt Gingrich had what was likely to be in the final analysis his best moment in South Carolina,” said Tea Party leader and former House Majority Leader Dick Armey on CNN’s “State of the Union,” referring to Gingrich’s Jan. 21 win. “We are not going to get a reliable, small government conservative out of this nominating process.”
In Nevada, Romney won almost every voting group, including those traditionally skeptical of his candidacy such as Tea Party supporters, according to entrance polls. Among self-described “very conservative” voters, 51 percent supported him at the polls, as did 48 percent of evangelical Christians.
The polling also showed he won support from three-quarters of those who listed the ability to beat Obama in November’s general election as the most important candidate quality for them, a group that was 44 percent of the electorate.
“We would rather have a Republican president that’s not fully the guy we adore wanting our affections than a Democrat president who despises us,” said Armey.
This week, Romney and his rivals plan to address party activists at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, where Tea Party favorite Sarah Palin is scheduled to give the keynote address. The reception they give Romney will be a test of his support within the base of his party.
Gingrich dismissed the Nevada results, saying contests in the South next month will put him in a “very competitive” position.
“Our goal is to get to Super Tuesday where we’re in much more favorable territory,” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” program. “We believe by the time Texas is over, we’ll be very, very competitive in delegate count.”
Super Tuesday’s 11 contests on March 6 include Georgia, which Gingrich represented in the House, while Texas is scheduled for April 3. Gingrich and his aides have been retooling his campaign, he told reporters Feb. 4 at a news conference in Las Vegas, without providing any details. He plans to campaign today in Golden, Colorado, and tonight in Bloomington, Minnesota.
Former Senator Rick Santorum, too, insisted that his candidacy would regain strength. He beat Romney by 34 votes in the lead-off Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3 and has seen his support drop since then.
“We’re going to show improvement,” he said on the “Fox News Sunday” program. “This race is a long, long way from being over.”
Santorum spent yesterday campaigning across Minnesota, with stops planned at churches and the mill that manufactures his trademark sweater vest embroidered with his campaign logo.
U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas, who came in third in Nevada after campaigning heavily in the state, also said voters are still making up their minds.
“I get energized because I know there’s a large number of people who are looking for another option,” he said on ABC’s “This Week” program. “Romney doesn’t satisfy a lot of people.”
With all Nevada precincts reporting, Romney had just over 50 percent of the vote, Gingrich had 21 percent, followed by Paul with almost 19 percent and Santorum with 10 percent, according to an Associated Press tally.
Following Nevada, there are five nomination contests in February, including caucuses in Maine that started over the weekend and will end later this week. Caucuses in Colorado and Minnesota on Feb. 7 are followed by primaries in Arizona and Michigan on Feb. 28. A non-binding primary will be held Feb. 7 in Missouri.
Many of the contests will award delegates on a proportional basis, rather than winner-take-all as was the case in Florida, giving Romney’s rivals an incentive to stay in the race.
The primaries at February’s end will garner the most attention because of the size of Michigan, the nation’s eighth most populous state, and Arizona, the 16th. Romney has potential advantages in both states.
Born in Michigan, he was raised in a Detroit suburb and his father, George, served as the state’s governor. Mitt Romney’s opposition to illegal immigration may help in Arizona. The U.S. Supreme Court is reviewing Arizona’s immigration law, which requires police to check the immigration status of anyone they arrest or stop and suspect may be in the U.S. illegally.
Restore our Future, a group supporting Romney, has already purchased advertising time in both states.
At the end of 2011, Romney reported having $20 million in his campaign bank account, while Gingrich had $2.1 million as well as $1.2 million in reported debts.
In recognition of his trailing finances, Gingrich scaled back his campaign schedule in Nevada to make more time for fundraising calls.
Also working against Gingrich is a decrease in nationally televised debates, forums that helped boost Gingrich’s candidacy. So far in February, just one debate is scheduled, making it harder for Gingrich to keep his name in front of the media and voters.
Gingrich has remained viable in part because of $10 million contributed to a political action committee supporting his candidacy by Sheldon Adelson and his wife. Adelson, a casino executive based in Las Vegas, hasn’t said whether he plans to make additional donations.
The New York Times reported that Adelson has assured Romney’s campaign he will provide financial support for his effort, should he become the nominee. Phone calls and e-mails to an Adelson aide weren’t immediately returned.
Asked about the report, Gingrich told reporters in Las Vegas it made sense Adelson would support Romney as the Republican standard-bearer.
“Look, Sheldon’s primary driving force is the survival of the United States and Israel in the face of an Iranian nuclear weapon,” he said Feb. 4. “And compared to Barack Obama, virtually anybody is a better candidate.”
--With assistance from Julianna Goldman in Las Vegas and Brian Faler in Washington, D.C. Editors: Ann Hughey, Robin Meszoly
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