ATLANTA (Reuters) - Mitt Romney acknowledged on Wednesday that his path to the Republican presidential nomination is not going to be easy after three shock losses to newly ascendant rival Rick Santorum.
A day after Santorum beat him in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri, Romney attempted to play down the results, saying his campaign did not devote a lot of time and money to the three state nominating contests and chose to compete strongly elsewhere.
Romney insisted at an airport news conference he believes he is still in a strong position to win the Republican nomination to face President Barack Obama in the November 6 election, but acknowledged that the path to victory is hard and that it is likely Santorum will win again.
"We think we can beat Senator Santorum where we compete head to head in an aggressive way. We obviously didn't do that in Colorado or Minnesota to the extent that the other campaign did. But sure there will be places where he wins, and places where I win."
"But there are no such things as coronation in presidential politics. It's meant to be a long process. It's not easy to get the nomination. It's not easy to be elected president, and this is a testing approach and so far we're doing pretty well," he said.
The three losses punctured Romney's case that, after decisive victories in Florida and Nevada, he will ultimately wind up with the presidential nomination to face Obama.
The Colorado loss was particularly tough because Romney had spent two days campaigning there. While he largely did not campaign in Minnesota, he did have the support of former Governor Tim Pawlenty there, and still lost big.
There was no sign that his campaign planned any dramatic changes in strategy in response to the losses, except to open up attacks on former Pennsylvania Senator Santorum the same way his campaign has battered former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor held in suspicion by conservatives, said Santorum and Gingrich while in Washington violated the principles that Tea Party movement conservatives hold dear - controlling federal spending and rising debt.
"Under Rick Santorum, he voted to raise the debt ceiling I believe five different times to the tune of about an additional $3.5 trillion. I believe that while Senator Santorum was serving in Congress and the Senate, government spending increased by some 80 percent," he said.
Romney said he expected a long nomination battle, and pointed out that 2008 Republican nominee Senator John McCain lost a number of contests after winning Florida but won by focusing on the process of gathering the 1,144 delegates needed.
"We're looking forward to the games ahead, and we think we're going to pick up the delegates we need to get the nomination if we do our job right. So we're feeling pretty good," said Romney.
Reporting By Steve Holland; Editing by Cynthia Osterman