Mitt Romney enters the danger zone

PHOENIX, Ariz. — Mitt Romney kicks off what may be the most fraught week of his political career today. In one week, Republican primary voters in Michigan (and perhaps less so here in Arizona) will make clear whether the presumptive frontrunner for the Republican nomination can continue to claim that mantle or if he has to adapt to an entirely upended and rejiggered contest.

Long before it became clear that Gov. Romney was not going to be able to wrap up the 2012 GOP presidential nomination in January, he and his campaign often pointed to a robust campaign war chest and political organization that was ready to carry him through the long march to the Republican National Convention in Tampa.

Of course, back then such talk was employed against his opponents more as bluster and boasting. Today, it is offered up as evidence of Romney's professed ability to survive.

"The goal is to stay ahead in the delegate count. Mitt Romney is ahead in the delegate count. He's always been ahead in the delegate count. And I think he'll stay that way," said Virginia governor and Romney surrogate Bob McDonnell on a conference call with reporters on Monday.

The Romney campaign national finance chairman hammered the point home in a statement accompanying the announcement of a $6.5 million cash haul last month.

"We are the only campaign who has the organization and resources to go the distance of a long primary process. We know there is a long road ahead and we will remain steady," Spencer Zwick said.

There have been no external signs of cracking under pressure from the Romney high command in Boston thus far, but the campaign's composure should Romney suffer a severe blow in Michigan will be an important dynamic to watch.

The latest polls in Michigan show former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum leading Romney, a native Michigander.

For Romney, one of the most damaging aspects of Santorum's rise in the polls nationally and in many critical upcoming primary states is the lack of importance being assigned by voters to the ability to defeat Barack Obama in November as key candidate quality.

In a New York Times/CBS News national poll of Republican voters released last week, Romney was the candidate seen as having the best chance at defeating the president. More than half of Republican voters said so compared to the 14 or 15 percent who said the same of Santorum and Gingrich.

Unfortunately for Romney, far fewer voters said that was an important quality (19 percent) than had said so in the aftermath of Romney's New Hampshire victory. A combined 56 percent of Republican voters said being a true conservative or having a strong moral character were the most important qualities in a candidate, attributes that play directly into Rick Santorum's wheelhouse.

Nothing matters more for Romney than coming out on top after the votes are counted next Tuesday, but getting there will likely require a winning debate performance on Wednesday night in Arizona and a rousing economic speech in Detroit on Friday. Those two high profile occasions are an opportunity for Romney to assuage concerns about his candidacy among the most conservative voters in his party.

This is the kind of week for which Romney has been spending the better part of the last six years preparing. To regain the upper hand in this nomination battle, Romney will need to turn that preparation into flawless execution.

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