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A supporter of U.S. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney attaches a campaign sign to a fence during a campaign stop at American Posts, manufacturer of metal fence posts, in Toledo, Ohio February 29, 2012. (REBECCA COOK/Rebecca Cook/Reuters)
A supporter of U.S. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney attaches a campaign sign to a fence during a campaign stop at American Posts, manufacturer of metal fence posts, in Toledo, Ohio February 29, 2012. (REBECCA COOK/Rebecca Cook/Reuters)

2012 U.S. Election

As Super Tuesday looms, Romney labours to gain headway Add to ...

Mitt Romney’s problem is that he is not really running against Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul, none of whom are plausible Republican presidential nominees.

Rather, Mr. Romney is fighting the perception that he is the weakest GOP front-runner in eons. Unless he overcomes it, he faces a wearying slog to the convention.

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The Michigan-bred Mr. Romney, an ex-Massachusetts governor, averted disaster by narrowly winning his birth state on Tuesday. But he is hardly back in the saddle.

He is once again struggling to manage expectations heading into Super Tuesday, when 10 states and 437 delegates are up for grabs, and faces another must-win contest in Ohio.

“If Romney had lost Michigan, many in the Republican Party would have pushed the panic button,” said GOP consultant Ron Bonjean, a partner in Washington-based Singer Bonjean Strategies. “In Ohio, he has already spent millions of dollars through his campaign and Super PAC and he’s losing to Rick Santorum in state polling.”

A University of Cincinnati poll released on Tuesday showed Mr. Romney trailing Mr. Santorum by a whopping 11 percentage points. But Mr. Bonjean figures Mr. Romney narrowed the gap overnight, simply by coming out on top (albeit barely) in Michigan.

Still, Mr. Romney goes into the Ohio battle on Mar. 6 without the “home state” advantage he had in Michigan, while the western Pennsylvania-bred Mr. Santorum is just as at home in the coal mining towns of eastern Ohio as he is the state’s Rust Belt cities.

What’s more, Mr. Santorum moved to address his empathy deficit among women by beginning his Tuesday concession speech with a tribute to his 93-year-old mother, among the first of her generation to attend college and have her own career.

“There was a reason for that part of his speech,” Mr. Bonjean noted, “and it wasn’t just to be nice to his mom.”

At the very least, it was a notable switch for a candidate who, in a 2006 book, railed against “radical feminism’s misogynistic crusade to make working outside the home the only marker of social value and self-respect.” And it marked a course correction for someone who only days ago called colleges “indoctrination mills” and President Obama a “snob” for wishing that every American might aspire to attend one.

This does not mean that Mr. Santorum, a strict Catholic who has said he wanted to “throw up” when he heard John F. Kennedy’s 1960 speech on the separation of church and state, is suddenly mellowing. It’s just that he can finally afford to hire messaging consultants.

All of this will make it harder for Mr. Romney to prevail in Ohio next week and to prove he can gain traction among working-class voters in a state he would likely need to carry to beat President Barack Obama.

Yet, Mr. Romney also needs a win there to offset his Super Tuesday losses elsewhere.

He can count on victory in his adopted state of Massachusetts and likely in Virginia, where neither Mr. Santorum nor Mr. Gingrich qualified for the ballot. He faces good odds in Idaho, but grim prospects in Georgia, Tennessee, Oklahoma and Alaska.

The Romney campaign is secretly hoping Mr. Gingrich carries one or more of the Southern states to prevent him from dropping out of the race and allowing Mr. Santorum to consolidate the anti-Romney vote. (Mr. Paul’s base is entirely his own.) Unlike most years, this Super Tuesday will not decide the Republican race. And while Democrats endured an excruciating nomination fight in 2008, it was an understandably tough choice since Mr. Obama and Hillary Clinton were both extraordinary candidates.

No one can say that about Mr. Romney’s rivals. And that makes him look bad.

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