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Gaffes, miscalculations toll on Romney after win in FL. MI loss would set off 'panic'

Florida crowned Mitt Romney the unofficial Republican nominee last month. Now he’s on the precipice of losing the race in Michigan, his native state.

What happened?

A better question might be: What didn’t happen?

Romney failed to take his main opponent Rick Santorum seriously this month, giving the upstart room to breathe and time to win three state races in a row. Romney, plagued by gaffes, has failed to sell a consistent a message about why he should be his party’s nominee.

And in a volatile election season, Romney has also had the misfortune of being the victim of what one Republican called “Tea Party roulette,” which has extended the primary race and kept him in the cross-hairs.

“Mitt has had a bulls eye on his back for something like two years now,” said Allan Bense, a former Florida House speaker and co-chair of Romney’s Florida campaign.

“Once the bulls eye is on your back and the mainstream and others examine you and your issues and your history, it isn’t pretty,” Bense said. “Rick Santorum is learning that now. So I think we’ll be okay once voters become educated about the other candidates.”

Bense is among the more confident Romney Florida backers. They’ve watched with dismay as the Sunshine State’s primary failed to be a deal-sealer for Romney in the race.

Last week, the campaign had to postpone a Daytona Beach fundraiser so that Romney could focus on campaigning in Michigan, a state he was expected to win handily. Now he’s essentially tied with Santorum. Polls suggest Romney should win in Arizona. Both states hold their primaries on Tuesday. The two states set up the 10-state Super Tuesday contest on March 6.

“If we don’t win Michigan on Tuesday, we will start to panic,” said one top Romney official, who didn’t want to be on record for talking out of school. “We made a few missteps. We allowed Santorum to win in Colorado, but we only really started campaigning there once it was too late.”

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