Gerald Herbert, Associated Press
NOVI, Mich. — Mitt Romney eked out a narrow victory in Michigan's GOP primary Tuesday, barely avoiding an embarrassing loss in his home state after acknowledging he had made mistakes along the way.
Romney had a more convincing win in Arizona, but then Rick Santorum and fellow rivals Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul hardly contested the state.
In his Michigan victory speech, Romney didn't mention Santorum, who courted socially conservative voters and came close to defeating him. Instead, Romney kept his focus on President Barack Obama and a core economic message, saying he'll bring "more jobs, less debt and smaller government."
At times Romney made his path to the double wins more difficult. The multimillionaire former CEO acknowledged earlier Tuesday that his own repeated, if accidental, references to his wealth had hurt his campaign.
"I'm very pleased with the campaign, its organization. The candidate sometimes makes some mistakes and so I'm trying to do better and work harder and make sure that we get our message across," he told reporters during his first news conference in nearly three weeks.
Romney has stumbled at times in speaking about his personal fortune, estimated as high as $250 million, while trying to connect with average Americans during tough economic times. He has made an offhand reference to owning "a couple of Cadillacs" and has said he is "not concerned about the very poor." Referring to insurance companies, he has said, "I like being able to fire people who provide services to me."
On Sunday, while in Florida for the Daytona 500, he remarked that he doesn't follow NASCAR as closely as some but has "some great friends that are NASCAR team owners."
When a reporter asked Tuesday whether comments that have drawn attention to his wealth have hurt his campaign, Romney gave a one-word answer: "Yes." Then he said: "Next question."
Romney took personal responsibility for setbacks in his campaign since Feb. 7 when he lost contests in Colorado, Missouri and Minnesota to Santorum. He said he has struggled with the conservative Republican voters backing Santorum in Michigan's primary because he's unwilling to make the "incendiary" comments he said they want to hear and say "outrageous things" like his opponents.
"It's very easy to excite the base with incendiary comments. We've seen throughout the campaign that if you're willing to say really outrageous things that are really accusative and attacking of President Obama, you're going to jump up in the polls," he said. "I'm not willing to light my hair on fire to try and get support. I am what I am."
Romney accused Santorum of trying to "kidnap the primary process" by urging Democrats to come to the polls in Michigan's primary — it's open to people willing to declare themselves Republicans for the purposes of voting — and vote against him.
In an automated phone call, Santorum's campaign urged Michigan Democrats to vote against Romney because he opposed the government bailout of the auto industry.
Romney himself voted in Democratic primaries in Massachusetts in an effort he says was aimed at picking the weakest opponent for the Republican who was running. He said Tuesday he voted "against Ted Kennedy, Tip O'Neill and Bill Clinton," and that doing so as a private citizen was different than a presidential campaign paying for phone calls.
Both campaigns waged all-out efforts to bring supporters to Michigan's polls in the neck-and-neck race. The former Massachusetts governor spent the past five days campaigning hard in Michigan, selling himself as a native son steeped in the auto industry that has defined the state for decades. He has a strong lead in Arizona, which also votes Tuesday.
Romney recently pivoted away from the cultural issues that the outwardly religious Santorum has brought to the forefront of the campaign. He had been attacking the former Pennsylvania senator as not conservative enough, but on Monday he focused instead on the economy. On Tuesday, Romney called Santorum an "economic lightweight" who isn't prepared to fix nation's economic woes.
"I am running against a guy in this state who is an economic lightweight. He doesn't understand how the economy works," Romney told supporters. Santorum hit back, calling himself a "conservative heavyweight."
Romney's campaign has already bought more TV airtime for ads in Ohio while the super PAC Restore Our Future plans to spend more on TV ads in Ohio, Tennessee, Georgia and Oklahoma.
Romney will stop in Ohio on Wednesday before flying to North Dakota and then on to Idaho. All three hold votes next week.
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