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Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney speaks during a campaign event in Mesa, Arizona February 13, 2012. (JOSHUA LOTT/REUTERS/JOSHUA LOTT/REUTERS)
Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney speaks during a campaign event in Mesa, Arizona February 13, 2012. (JOSHUA LOTT/REUTERS/JOSHUA LOTT/REUTERS)

In dead heat with Santorum, Romney must decide: Is going on the attack enough? Add to ...

For former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, bad news has been coming in threes lately: three Midwest losses to Rick Santorum a week ago, and three national surveys of Republican voters in the last 24 hours are proof that Mr. Santorum is enjoying a post-Midwest surge.

Two polls on Monday – one by Gallup, the other by Pew – show Mr. Romney and Mr. Santorum running neck-and-neck, an outcome attributed to Tea Party and evangelical voters coalescing around the Santorum candidacy.

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But before Mr. Santorum starts to sound too much like a front-runner, a quick reality check.

“Gallup Daily tracking conducted in the days after Santorum’s sweep of three little-anticipated nominating contests last week shows national Republicans responding as they have each time there has been a big win or an upset in the caucuses and primaries thus far – by jumping on the winner’s bandwagon,” the Gallup firm explained on Monday.

And if there is one thing that is ever true in this contest, it is voters jumping on the bandwagon – and off the bandwagon.

A third national survey of Republican voters nationwide, released this morning, shows virtually the same outcome. Mr. Santorum has the support of 30 per cent of Republican voters, compare to Mr. Romney’s 27 per cent support – a virtual tie when taking in to account the margin of error.

The key detail in this last survey is that six out of 10 of those surveyed said they were likely to change their mind going ahead. Call them volatile, discerning, or dissatisfied, the Republican base will continue to make this a topsy-turvy race.

And with the Michigan primary two weeks away, there is further proof that Michigan’s native son is in trouble. Two separate polls show Mr. Romney trailing Mr. Santorum in the state of Michigan – a state where his father served as governor and which he won in 2008, as the Globe’s Sonia Verma reports.

The good news for Mr. Romney: he’s been here before – twice – and he’s managed to demolish his opponents.

A pro-Romney Super PAC – a political action committee that under new campaign financing rules is allowed to raise unlimited money so long as it does not coordinate with a candidate – waged a withering campaign of TV attack ads targeting candidate Newt Gingrich when he surged to the top of the polls in December ahead of the Iowa caucuses.

“You know what makes Barack Obama happy?” the narrator asks in the attack ad. “Newt Gingrich’s baggage. Newt has more baggage than the airlines.” The ad sowed doubt in the minds of voters over Mr. Gingrich’s tumultuous years as a Washington, D.C., politician and speaker of the House of Representatives.

Mr. Gingrich, losing badly in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, was able to mount a dramatic comeback ahead of the South Carolina primary, winning the first southern state contest.

Mr. Romney’s candidacy, once again being openly questioned and looking shaky, took the fight directly to Mr. Gingrich ahead of the Florida primary on Jan. 31.

This time, the Romney campaign worked on several fronts: relentlessly tying Mr. Gingrich to the mortgage and foreclosure crisis in Florida by drawing attention to his work for mortgage giant Freddie Mac; depicting Mr. Gingrich as a Washington, D.C. insider in TV ads; Mr. Romney pursuing an aggressive line of attack during TV debates; and using Romney surrogates to get under the skin of the Gingrich campaign at various Gingrich campaign events.

The formula worked marvels, and Mr. Romney trounced Mr. Gingrich in the Sunshine state.

A similar strategy to sow doubt about Mr. Santorum’s track record using attacks ads and drawing attention to the former Pennsylvania senator’s years as a "Washington D.C. insider" – a now-standard phrase used by the Romney campaign to describe Mr. Santorum – could work. And the Romney campaign has enough money to give Mr. Santorum the Gingrich treatment.

Just one problem: Every time Mr. Romney is done “waging warfare on his GOP competitors,” as one American journalist put it, his popularity takes a dip. In other words, hard-fought wins secured through attack ads and cutting down your opponent hurts Mr. Romney in terms his overall favourability ratings among Republicans and independents.

Mr. Romney used a campaign event Monday evening in Mesa, Ariz., to attack both Mr. Santorum and Mr. Gingrich as long-time Washington politicians who have “spent their life entirely in government.”

“Let’s not nominate somebody who has not run anything and has not been a leader,” Mr. Romney told the audience, alluding to his track record as a governor and head of investment firm Bain Capital.

The Romney campaign’s line of attack on Mr. Santorum will become clearer and sharper in the days head. But going negative may not be enough.

There is a more pressing problem: key sections of the Republican base still do not believe Mr. Romney is the true, ideological standard-bearer for the conservative movement.

Follow on Twitter: @affanchowdhry

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