2012 ELECTION

Mitt Romney facing challenges

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The number of independent voters in America has swelled. That means they are a top target for both candidates in what Republican and Democratic operatives alike anticipate will be a close election for reasons that include the country's increasingly polarized nature.

Romney grabbed important wins in D.C., Maryland and Wisconsin on Tuesday. (Photo: Associated Press)

As the incumbent, Obama has a built-in advantage and a huge head start. He has spent months wooing the center of the electorate even as he worked to fire up his Democratic base.

Romney has a ton of ground to make up. And, even though he's been eager to shift his campaign to focus on fundraising, building and advertising for the general election, he doesn't have the luxury of doing that in earnest just yet. His stubborn Republican opponents, inspired by anti-Romney skepticism from the right flank of the party, aren't letting him.

And that means Romney will continue - for a while at least - to be at least marginally distracted by an intra-party contest whose outcome has never really been in question.

Tuesday night's victories did little to persuade his overmatched Republican rivals to quit the race.

"The clock starts tonight," chief Republican rival Rick Santorum told supporters gathered in his home state of Pennsylvania, which hosts a GOP primary April 24. "After winning this state, the field looks a little different in May."

He predicted his comeback sometime that month, a claim that is both frustrating and somewhat laughable for a growing number of Republicans across the country mindful of the real challenge Obama represents.

Ron Paul, too, is pledging to stay in the race, and Newt Gingrich on Tuesday issued a statement insisting he was "committed to carrying the banner of bold conservative colors all the way to Tampa."

It was a reference to the party's national nominating convention in Florida this summer, where Romney would accept the nomination should he secure the 1,144 delegates needed to win.

Despite the GOP primary distraction, Romney is trying hard to look ahead - no matter how daunting the view. At the end of February, the president's re-election campaign reported $84.7 million in the bank compared with Romney's $7.3 million - all money raised for the primary.

Obama has more than 530 paid staff compared with roughly 100 for Romney.

And Obama already has staff distributed in almost every state in the nation, while Romney's team is concentrated in Boston and a handful of primary states. In recent days, Romney's team has tried to start preparing to tackle the challenges.

Aides visited Washington to recruit staffers in hopes of hiring them as soon as the campaign has enough general election money.

The campaign recently alerted donors to prepare to raise general election dollars.

Mindful of the need to keep at least one eye on the primary fight, Romney sent a message to Republicans set to vote April 24 in a series of contests: He hasn't forgotten them.

"Tonight, I'm asking the good people of Connecticut, Delaware, New York, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island to join me. Join me in the next step toward that destination of Nov. 6, when across America we can give a sigh of relief and know that the Promise of America has been kept," he said. "The dreamers can dream a little bigger, the help wanted signs can get dusted off and be put in the front yard, and we can start again."

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