2012 ELECTION

Romney battles Santorum, Paul in GOP caucuses

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Touting himself as a true conservative - a slap at Gingrich - he sought to undermine Romney's electability claim at the same time by predicting the former Massachusetts governor would lose to Obama.

Romney responded by assailing Santorum as an advocate of congressional earmarks - shifting the criticism he had leveled at Gingrich when the Georgian seemed a more imposing threat. In the hours before the caucuses convened, the front-runner sought to lower expectations.

"Mitt Romney is not going to win every contest," Rich Beeson, the campaign's political director, wrote in a memo for public consumption. "John McCain lost 19 states in 2008, and we expect our opponents will notch a few wins, too," Beeson wrote.

McCain, the Arizona senator, won the Republican nomination four years ago. In fact, Colorado and Minnesota were among the states that McCain failed to win, and he lost them to Romney. In the four years since, the GOP has become more conservative in both.

That posed a challenge for Romney, who runs as the Republican most likely to defeat Obama and is still trying to establish his credentials among tea party activists suspicious of a one-time moderate who backed abortion rights.

Two years ago in Minnesota, establishment candidates for governor were swept aside in the primary, and tea party-backed insurgents for governor and the Senate in Colorado won the party nominations.

In all three cases, Democrats won in the general election that fall. Gingrich spent the day campaigning in Ohio, one of the primary states on March 6.

His campaign went into a downward spiral after he won the South Carolina primary in an upset. The former speaker was routed in the Florida primary to Romney, then finished a distant second in Nevada over the weekend.

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