DETROIT — No matter what happens in Tuesday's primaries in Michigan and Arizona or the March 6 Super Tuesday elections, one of Mitt Romney's key advisers says the race won't be over anytime soon.
"It's not a coronation, it's a process," said former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, who is traveling around the country with Romney. "This isn't 'American Idol' where they have a show and announce the winner."
While Romney's campaigners have always attempted to manage expectations for his performance at the polls, it appears they may be resigned to an even more protracted battle to the GOP nomination.
"This is going to be a long race. There are going to be ebbs and flows," Leavitt said, predicting that Romney will do well in the upcoming elections but "there will likely be something for everybody to cheer about."
The former member of President George W. Bush's cabinet said Romney supporters should steel themselves even though they'd "like to see this as a horse race with a clean and crisp finish."
Romney had been trailing in Michigan behind former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, sparking new suggestions that none of the candidates currently in the race may end up being the party's choice at the national convention in August.
After Santorum swept caucuses earlier this month in Colorado, Missouri and Minnesota, he became the latest candidate to emerge as an alternative for Republicans attempting to unseat Romney as the front-runner.
Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich had assumed that role following a big victory in South Carolina. Gingrich's support faded, however, after his loss to Romney in Florida.
And the fourth candidate still in contention, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, a former Libertarian Party candidate for president, has a loyal and committed following that has helped him amass delegates.
The "enthusiasm gap" among voters that has plagued Romney since the start of the campaign doesn't seem to be closing. And in Michigan, the state where Romney was raised and his father served as governor, the gap could spell serious trouble.
"He's the kind of guy it's hard to be enthusiastic about," Michigan State University political science professor Paul Abramson said. "He doesn't, let's say, radiate a lot of personal warmth. People may think he's competent."
Abramson said that's because Romney is selling himself to Michigan voters as a "technocrat who has business experience." He said Romney is seen as turning his back on the state's auto industry by opposing the federal bailout backed by President Barack Obama.
"Even though Republican voters didn't support this bailout, I think it showed a lack of empathy," Abramson said, and reinforced their interest in finding an alternative candidate even though Romney won the state in 2008.
Santorum had held as much as a double-digit lead over Romney in some polls, but the lead appears to be shifting in the final days before Tuesday's election.
Abramson said he initially predicted a win for Santorum in Michigan. "Now I see it as a toss-up," he said. "Whatever the outcome is, it wouldn’t surprise me."
A narrow loss for Romney in Michigan could be offset by his expected win in Arizona's primary Tuesday, Abramson said. But, he warned, a bad showing for Romney could put him "in very serious trouble."
Another Romney campaigner from Utah, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, said too much emphasis is being put on the Michigan primary.
"I think that 'do or die' is overplayed," Chaffetz said. "I still think he's going to finish strong. He's the best chance to help Michigan as a whole."
Chaffetz also dismissed a lack of enthusiasm as the reason for Romney's standing in Michigan. "There's no one thing you can point to," he said. "I'm not buying this whole 'enthusiasm gap.'"
But Dave Woodard, a political science professor at Clemson University in South Carolina, said Santorum is being seen as better able to reach voters.
"I respect Mitt Romney tremendously," Woodard said. "I respect guys that have been that successful. But his heart doesn't seem to connect the way Santorum's does."
Santorum, he said, is "kind of like the 'Little Engine that Could.' He's the epitome of the candidate who never quits. And he stays on this message of social issues, that we've got to fix this county's culture before the economy."
It's a message that shouldn't be working this election year but appears to be resonating. "He's getting to a deeper level," Woodard said. "He's got a passion about it … Romney doesn’t seem to have that passion."
Given those differences, Woodard said losing Michigan "seems almost like it's a kiss of death for Romney that would show all the momentum is with Santorum, that he's really the 'for real' guy."
University of New Hampshire political science professor Dante Scala said Santorum is looking like a serious contender only because "there's just no one else to turn to at this point."
If Santorum takes Michigan Tuesday, Scala warned the GOP race could begin to resemble a disaster movie as Santorum and Romney wrestle for control.
"Imagine two people fighting over the steering wheel, going down the highway at 50 miles an hour," Scala said, "with all of the Republican elites sitting in the back of the bus, just scared out of their wits … hoping the bus doesn't crash and burst into flames."
Scala said Romney's campaign is right to portray the race as going on and on.
"It looks like a slog to me. Even if he wins Michigan and Arizona, you look at the lineup of Super Tuesday states and I guess I would be surprised if all of sudden, Romney pulls off this dramatic sweep."
Still, Romney can win the nomination by toughing it out, Scala said. "It's not the most awe-inspiring campaign story, but it shows he's been able to weather the storm."
Longtime Romney adviser Kirk Jowers, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, said this has already been "by far the most vetted nomination process in the history of our country," including 20 GOP debates.
Jowers said that's leading to "a growing yearning among Republicans to select someone, probably Romney, and begin the task at hand of defeating Obama."22 comments on this story
He said Romney is slowly but surely reaching voters.
"Certainly, I'm a little biased, but I have never had any real concern about him getting the nomination," Jowers said. "Of course, people get impatient … a lot of us want closure, especially those of us who love Romney and think he'd be a great president."