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Romney retools his message as his lead shrinks in Arizona

Holly Bailey, Yahoo News
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Mitt Romney in Chandler, Arizona (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

CHANDLER, Ariz.—The campaign signs at Mitt Romney's first rally in Arizona in more than a week looked like a last minute print job. Red and white with a far more sparse design than his regular 2012 logo, the signs read "Mitt Romney AZ" and were printed on heavy letter stock paper that looked more like fancy resume paper than political signage.

As Romney and his wife, Ann, took the stage at a tiny Christian school here just outside Phoenix, supporters enthusiastically waved their "AZ" signs in the air—and the signs, unlike the regular sturdier Romney 2012 placards, rippled precariously as though they might tear at any second.

The signs gave an air to what has generally been a last minute feel to the Arizona primary campaign as it heads into its final days. Unlike previous voting states, the television airwaves here aren't being blanketed by campaign ads, and few, if any, political signs adorn the streets. There's a good reason why: Two weeks ago, the state looked like a sure thing for Romney, as he was up by more than 25 points over Rick Santorum, his closest rival. The wide lead enabled Romney's campaign to start shifting its energies to Michigan.

But, the race has tightened considerably in recent days, prompting some alarm among Romney supporters here. It's unclear if Romney is going to increase his presence in Arizona in the coming days. While his campaign had been expected to focus largely on Michigan ahead of next Tuesday's primary, an aide acknowledged the schedule remains up in the air.

On Tuesday, a CNN/Time Magazine poll found Romney and Santorum statistically tied in the state, 36 percent to 32 percent. But that was contradicted by a NBC News/Marist poll released Wednesday, which found Romney leading Santorum by 16 points, 43 percent to 27 percent.

Asked Wednesday which poll he believed more, Arizona Rep. Jeff Flake, one of Romney's most high profile supporters here, acknowledged the race has gotten much tighter in recent days. "I think it's somewhere in the middle," Flake said, when asked if he believes Romney has a 16 point lead or 4 point lead. "But what counts is that Romney is going to fight up until Election Day and win."

But there seems to be an air of fatigue and perhaps a little concern around Romney's campaign amid Santorum's rising national poll numbers. Both the candidate and his staff look a bit worn on the trail. Even Ann Romney, who is usually a looser and far more bubbly presence on the stump than her husband, seemed more sedate than usual when introducing her husband this morning—and this was her first public appearance alongside her spouse in several days.

Although Romney looked a bit tired, he had been practicing several new lines in his stump speech. Standing in front of a new sign the campaign had clearly put far more production effort into—"Restore America's Promise," it read—Romney unveiled specifics of a new tax plan, which he said would lower Americans' taxes by 20 percent.

And while he didn't mention any of his GOP rivals by name, Romney went after President Obama, telling the crowd here Obama is "out of ideas and out of excuses" when it comes to turning the economy around.

"The president will take us in one direction," Romney said. "I'll take us in a different one."

Notably, Romney spoke without a teleprompter, even as he went through a series of facts and figures that is sure to be a preview of his message at the final GOP primary debate tonight on CNN as well as a major economic speech he's set to deliver on Friday in Detroit.

Romney's move to get specific about his economic proposals is something allies have been privately urging his campaign to do for weeks—in the hopes of shoring up his conservative credentials with the party base.

"The one thing they cannot allow to happen is to get into an ideological race with a plausible candidate in chief, which Santorum is," a Republican strategist close to the Romney campaign, who declined to be named, told Yahoo News. "Their effort to prove he's conservative so far has been for him to deliver a speech where he says 'conservative' or 'conservatism' a million times. There's been no policy that demonstrates that conservatism."

It's advice that Romney, at least judging by his remarks Wednesday, appears to be heeding. But with polls tight in Arizona and in Michigan—two must-win states where Romney seems at serious risk of losing—the question is whether it's too late.

Don't miss our live coverage of the CNN Republican debate in Arizona.

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