That took its toll on Romney. It all started in Iowa, where vote counts initially showed an eight-vote Romney victory — giving him momentum and headlines. But weeks later — after the campaign had moved to South Carolina and Romney was battling Gingrich — Santorum was declared the winner.
Romney's campaign left Santorum for dead as he beat Gingrich in Florida and won in Nevada. But he lost three states — Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri — to Santorum on Feb. 7, breathing new life into the former senator's insurgent candidacy and forcing Romney to compete for two more months. Santorum eventually won contests in Tennessee, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Kansas, Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana.
The battle forced Romney to spend more money attacking Santorum with negative ads in big Midwestern states like Michigan, Illinois and Ohio, where he won increasingly large victories.
Now, he must rise to the daunting challenge of taking on an incumbent president backed by what's expected to be one of the most sophisticated re-election campaigns in history. Longtime Republican strategist Ed Gillespie joined the Romney campaign this month to help, but the team hasn't been able to expand much beyond the small core group of loyal strategists that waged the primary.
Obama's campaign has a sizeable cash advantage over Romney's, having more than $84 million in the bank at the end of February, Federal Election Commission records show. Romney's campaign had about $7.2 million. Those filings show Romney has a fifth the paid staff of Obama's campaign. He had yet to tap the resources of the Republican Party that will become available to the party nominee.
Santorum's exit doesn't greatly change Obama's calculus. The president and his campaign have been expecting to face Romney all along and have already been targeting him. Yet the departure of Romney's chief GOP rival means this is the point where the Obama campaign will engage even more heavily.
From the White House, Vice President Joe Biden has led the political fire against Romney, and over the past week Obama has started tying his speeches about economic fairness to Romney — directly, or in the coy way he chose Tuesday, warning of old, failed economic ideas from a candidate "who shall not be named."
Obama's speech in Florida, amid a full day of fundraising, was partly designed to draw a contrast between himself and Romney. The president is building his re-election campaign on the theme that he would help everyone succeed while Romney would cater to the rich and leave many people to struggle.
"This election will probably have the biggest contrast that we've seen maybe since the Johnson-Goldwater election, maybe before that," Obama told donors at a campaign event. In his 1964 race against Republican Barry Goldwater, former President Lyndon Johnson carried 44 of 50 states and won 61 percent of the popular vote, the largest share of any candidate since 1820.
Romney trails Obama in organizing in some key battleground states such as Ohio and Florida, though Romney aides point to networks of supporters and volunteers that remain in place since his winning primary campaigns in the two electoral prizes.
The same is true in Iowa, where Romney nearly won the January caucuses, and New Hampshire and Nevada, where he did win in the primary campaign's early days. The five are in the top 10 most competitive since 2000, and were all carried by Obama four years ago.
Other more typically Republican-performing battlegrounds Romney is eyeing at returning to the GOP column include Colorado, Virginia and North Carolina, which Obama flipped after consecutive GOP victories.
So far, polling shows people tend to like Obama more than Romney. Yet the public's top issue is also Obama's biggest vulnerability. Despite recent improvements in the public's outlook, ratings of Obama's handling of the economy remain in negative territory. According to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released Tuesday, Romney and Obama are about even on which candidate Americans trust more to handle the economy.
Kasie Hunt reported from Washington. Associated Press White House Correspondent Ben Feller, Deputy Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta and writers Jack Gillum in Washington and Thomas Beaumont in Iowa contributed to this report.
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