* Romney's close win won't dispel doubts
* Republicans pessimistic as fight drags on
* Race turns to 10 contests on Super Tuesday
By John Whitesides
WASHINGTON, Feb 29 Mitt Romney's narrow
win in Michigan is unlikely to ease lingering doubts about his
candidacy or head off the possibility of a long and divisive
presidential nominating fight that is damaging Republican
chances in November's general election.
The close result in Michigan at least temporarily returned
Romney to his frontrunner status and averted an outbreak of
panic among Republicans worried that staunch social conservative
Rick Santorum could doom the party in the November election.
But Romney's struggle to narrowly capture the state where he
was once a big favorite highlighted questions about his own
inability to connect with voters, and simply shifts the fight
down the road to a new round of battlegrounds in 10 "Super
Tuesday" states next week.
"Everyone can breathe a sigh of relief and Romney gets a
little momentum heading into next week, but it doesn't change
much," Republican strategist Ron Bonjean said. "This is going to
be a long, drawn-out marathon. It feels like a political death
The state-by-state Republican race goes national now with 22
contests in March, including the state of Washington on Saturday
and 10 contests next Tuesday led by a primary in the crucial
general election state of Ohio.
Ohio looms as the next big battleground in the constantly
shifting Republican nominating struggle. Romney, the former
Massachusetts governor, and Santorum, the former U.S. senator
from Pennsylvania, will face off again there.
Santorum is ahead in early polls in Ohio, where Romney will
try again to find a way to appeal to conservatives who distrust
him for his support in liberal Massachusetts for abortion rights
and a healthcare overhaul similar to President Barack Obama's
Multimillionaire Romney has seen his negatives rise in polls
as he has unleashed attacks on his rivals and reminded voters of
his superrich status with recent comments about his wife's two
Cadillacs and his friends who own NASCAR teams.
'WE DON'T LIKE ANY OF THEM'
His struggles to connect with social conservatives in states
like South Carolina, which he lost to rival Newt Gingrich, and
with blue-collar Midwestern conservatives in places like Iowa,
Missouri and Minnesota, where Santorum beat him, have raised
doubts among senior Republicans about his strength against Obama
Obama's poll numbers against his Republican rivals
strengthened nationally and in Michigan as the primary campaign
rolled on, and polls show a growing number of Republicans are
dissatisfied with the field of contenders.
"The longer this goes on, Republican voters are saying 'We
don't like any of them,'" Steve Schmidt, campaign manager for
John McCain in 2008, said on MSNBC.
"The net result of all this is a very pessimistic Republican
Party - Washington people went from very confident a few months
ago about beating President Obama to where they are today, which
is very pessimistic," he said.
A Santorum win in Michigan would have unleashed another
round of speculation among dissatisfied Republicans about new
candidates jumping in the race or a brokered convention in
Tampa, Florida, in August.
Unlike the 2008 Democratic nominating fight between Obama
and Hillary Clinton, which lasted until June as Democrats chose
between two popular contenders, the Republicans fight threatens
to go the distance because none of the contenders have been
strong enough to land a knockout blow.
Romney overcame what had been a big deficit in Michigan by
unleashing a flood of negative attacks on Santorum, who turned
the campaign debate in the last few weeks toward hot-button
social issues like birth control, religion and abortion.
Romney, who also easily won the Arizona primary along with
Michigan on Tuesday, has now won six of the first 11 contests in
the Republican battle to pick a nominee to face Obama in the
Nov. 6 general election.
Romney's financial and organizational advantage will help
him as the contests come more quickly and in more states, and he
continued to build a lead in the race for the 1,144 delegates
needed to win the nomination.
But he will face questions about his general election
viability against Obama until he can prove his appeal to
conservatives and win a state in the South, the Republican
general election stronghold.
Romney struggled again with conservatives in Michigan. Exit
polls showed about six of every 10 voters described themselves
as conservative. Santorum won with self-described strong
conservatives, although Romney did better with those who said
they were only somewhat conservative.
"Until he figures out how to communicate with conservatives,
he's going to have to keep fighting state by state and really
having to slog it out to the nomination," Republican strategist
Ford O'Connell said.