FARGO, N.D. — His two latest victories aside, Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney is working to connect more personally with voters and refocus his campaign on the protracted fight for convention delegates as he tries to recover from a difficult month and answer key questions about the strength of his candidacy.
Yet, even as Romney launched his effort to address his vulnerabilities, the former Massachusetts governor found himself creating a fresh controversy — and irking conservatives anew — by equivocating on a Senate bill on insurance coverage of birth control.
It was an ill-timed hiccup just as Romney — the nominal GOP front-runner for the past year — is trying to capitalize on twin victories in Arizona and Michigan and put to rest concerns within the GOP establishment about his inability to wrap up the nomination quickly, his proclivity for self-made errors and his struggles to relate to his audiences. His efforts to improve on all those fronts were on clear display Wednesday, starting with a town-hall style meeting in Bexley, Ohio.
"By far the most important thing in my life is my wife. All right? Ann and I fell in love young, we're still in love. We have a marriage that is still filled with love," Romney told his rapt audience there after a sympathetic voter asked him to "show the American people you have a lot of heart."
It was one of the most emotional moments of his campaign, with Romney talking at length about his five sons and saying he didn't think his "heart could get bigger," until they married and his grandkids were born. He talked of other personal experiences before pivoting to the American public at large — and making this pitch: "This is a family crisis going on in America, and I think I can help. I can't solve all the problems, but I can make a difference, and that's why I am in this race."
Behind the scenes, Romney's aides — as well as a super political action committee supporting him — spent the day working to recalibrate the candidate's approach to next week's Super Tuesday contests, when 10 states will vote and Wyoming will begin its caucuses, and beyond. In almost all of the future contests in the nomination fight, delegates to the Republican Party's national presidential nominating convention later this summer will be awarded proportionally among the candidates.
Given that, Romney can't rely on momentum alone to carry him to the nomination. His team must gird anew for a long delegate slog as well as the reality that his chief rivals — Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich — are showing no signs of dropping out as long as super PACs aligned with them keep running expensive TV ads on their behalf.
Despite his challenges, Romney has emerged the leader in the fight for the 1,144 delegates needed to earn the nomination at the Republican National Convention in Tampa this summer. He has 167 delegates to Santorum's 87. Gingrich has 32 and Texas Rep. Ron Paul, also a factor, has 19.
Romney is visiting Ohio, North Dakota, Idaho and Washington state this week — and still may add other states if his team determines victories are in reach. He's devoting time and money to places where he thinks he can amass the most delegates of the 419 up for grabs next Tuesday.
Aides acknowledge that the Super Tuesday fight — waged in almost all regions of the country, in 10 states where buying a heavy week's worth of ads costs about $5 million, industry experts estimate — is tougher because of Romney's rough time in February. He won in Nevada on Feb. 4. But he lost three states to Santorum on Feb. 8, including Colorado — a situation aides now acknowledge was a miscalculation.
To hear the campaign tell it, Romney didn't compete aggressively in that state, which he won in 2008, because advisers wrongly assumed that winning several states in January would give him enough momentum to win there. The campaign also underestimated Santorum, who had struggled for relevance in South Carolina, Florida and Nevada and appeared less of a threat than Gingrich.
The three victories gave Santorum steam, and the former Pennsylvania senator became an immediate threat in Romney's native Michigan.
That month fed doubts about Romney's ability to close the deal with voters. Romney has said he's made his problems worse by making remarks that draw attention to his own personal wealth. And aides acknowledge he's been plagued by the perception that he can't connect emotionally with voters even though those who know him well say that the candidate isn't awkward or out-of-touch at all.
"The candidate sometimes makes some mistakes," Romney told reporters Tuesday ahead of the Michigan primary, "and so I'm trying to do better and work harder and make sure that we get our message across."Comment on this story
One day later, he created a new headache for himself when he told an Ohio TV station that he opposed Republican Senate legislation that critics say would limit insurance coverage of birth control. The comment riled some conservatives. Romney aides quickly sought to fix the mistake and the candidate reversed himself in a second interview, saying he misunderstood the question.
Despite the campaign's quick damage control, the flap highlighted anew Romney's struggles to win over conservatives who make the base of the Republican electorate — and the candidate's challenges ahead.