CINCINNATI — Mitt Romney was barely six minutes into a campaign speech here Monday afternoon, dwelling on the success story of a local bioscience company, when he broached a topic that is suddenly confounding his Republican presidential aspirations: Rick Santorum.
“Sen. Santorum goes to Washington and calls himself a budget hawk, and after he’s been there a while, he says he’s no longer a budget hawk,” Romney said, his voice rising for emphasis as he looked out at the row of cameras before him. “Well, I am a budget hawk.”
As Santorum was greeted by a large and enthusiastic crowd four hours away in Ohio’s coal country, he made no mention of his rival, a clear sign that the tables have turned — for now, at least — in the Republican nominating contest, leaving Romney scrambling to regain his command over the race.
While Romney may not know for weeks or even months whether he will win the nomination, his performance over the next seven days will likely provide a telling signal about whether he can persuade the party at last to embrace his candidacy or whether he faces a long fight to overcome its skepticism about him.
After a stretch in which Santorum’s focus on appealing to conservatives through social issues has dominated the campaign, Romney has two high-profile opportunities this week to steer the conversation back to the economy and defeating President Barack Obama: a debate Wednesday in Arizona followed by a speech Friday in Michigan that his campaign is billing as a major policy address. Both states will hold their primaries next Tuesday.
There are few outward signs that panic has set in at the Romney campaign — the delegate-by-delegate chess game has only begun — but concern is palpable among Romney, his allies, and Republican Party elders, many of whom are increasingly fretting aloud about the prospect that he may not be as electable as he seemed only weeks ago.
“It’s way too premature to be talking about something like that,” said Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, a top supporter of Romney, when asked about the growing worries from some of his colleagues about the need to prepare for a backup Republican candidate. “He knew that this was going to be a long haul. He’s been through it before.”
But Romney has not been through this moment before, so close to grasping the nomination yet so far away from persuading conservative activists that he has the strongest potential as a nominee to appeal to independent voters and defeat Obama.
“I wish this was over,” Alex Triantafilou, the Republican Party chairman in Cincinnati, said in an interview Monday.
The Romney campaign has shed much of the bravado that was often on display last year when it focused on Obama and all but ignored its Republican rivals. (During a Chicago visit in May, aides to Romney sent leftover pizza to the Obama campaign office, just to make the campaign aware that they were on the president’s home turf.)
Romney had hoped to resume his confident posture against Obama with a Chicago speech March 20, the day of Illinois’ primary. But those plans are on hold, given that Romney could still be battling Santorum.