Mitt Romney is entering a pivotal stretch in his quest for the Republican presidential nomination.
After a two-week lull following the Nevada caucuses and voting in Colorado, Missouri, and Minnesota, the GOP campaign moves back into the national spotlight tomorrow with a debate in Mesa, Ariz.
Then, a week from today, both Arizona and Michigan hold their primaries, the latter especially important as it’s Romney’s native state.
A week after that, on March 6, it’s Super Tuesday, in which voting in 10 states has the potential to give one of the four final candidates a breakout lead for the nomination.
Even members of the Romney camp concede they are in uncertain territory.
Whereas in the past, candidates would have to drop out of the race because they could no longer raise the money to propel their candidacies, now Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich can continue thanks in large part to the support of a single backer who donates to a super PAC supporting them.
Meanwhile, the fourth candidate in the race, Representative Ron Paul of Texas, bounds along as well with a steady stream of donations from his loyal libertarian followers. His super PAC, Endorse Liberty, raised a relatively low $2.4 million.
All that has prevented the oft-frontrunner from decisively pulling away from the pack.
The question now is whether Romney does something - in the debate, on the stump, with his personal wealth - to try to make that happen before a loss in Michigan fuels talk of a brokered convention or some other embarrassment for him.
In Santorum’s case, stock-picking expert Foster Friess continued last month to bankroll a supportive super PAC, contributing over $650,000 to the Red, White and Blue Fund in January alone. Campaign finance reports that were due at midnight show Louisiana energy executive William Dore chipped in another $1 million.
In the case of Gingrich, casino mogul Sheldon Adelson gave $5 million on Jan. 6 to the pro-Gingrich Winning Our Future super PAC, followed by a matching donation by his wife, Miriam, on Jan. 24.
The PAC spent $9.7 million during month - all of which could have been covered with just the two Adelson donations.
By contrast, the pro-Romney Restore Our Future super PAC tapped an array of donors - including a group of 30 repeat donors, The Associated Press tallied - to raise $6.6 million during January. It also more than doubled its income with $14 million in spending.
While the super PACs are legally prohibited from coordinating with a candidate’s formal political committee, they can relieve it of a tremendous burden by airing television commercials on a candidate’s behalf.
That leaves the candidate himself - especially low-budget competitors like Santorum and Gingrich - with little responsibility for themselves other than raising enough for travel and lodging expenses.
The Romney campaign per se outraised all three of its rivals, taking in $6.5 million to $5.5 million for Gingrich and $4.5 million apiece for Santorum and Paul.
But it also vastly outspent them, spending nearly $19 million during the month. All told, Romney’s official committee and the super PAC spent over $32 million last month supporting his candidacy.
Romney ended January with $7.7 million in the bank, compared to $1.8 million for Gingrich, $1.6 million for Paul, and $1.5 million for Santorum.
In the past, a more than three-fold cash advantage would likely have been decisive in a campaign. Now, Santorum and Gingrich are able to hang in with Romney.
While they may not be challenging him for the lead in delegates, they have no financial necessity to abandon campaigns they equate as fights for their party’s political soul.
With Romney unable to put away his rivals politically thanks to an unprecedented string of 20 debates that have allowed a succession of challengers to wax and wane since last spring, and with super PACs allowing the remaining contenders to keep running from a financial perspective, the former Massachusetts governor is in a perilous state.
Negative campaigning by him and negative advertising by Restore Our Future have effectively limited the growth of Gingrich and Santorum, but the two candidates have also been able to sow doubts about Romney among the primary campaign’s critical conservative electorate.
Zeke J. Miller of BuzzFeed.com also reported last week that Romney’s campaign committee is starting to have trouble raising money from average donors, while his wealthiest backers are channeling funds separately to his super PAC.
Although Romney has a leaner campaign operation than in 2008, he still travels with an entourage, has the biggest campaign headquarters of all the candidates, and he is flying across the country - largely on private jets - as he continues to wage what he proudly and rightly claims is a national campaign.
All that fuels the specter of Romney having to tap his personal wealth to compensate for any lack of small-dollar support.
During his 2008 campaign, Romney spent over $45 million of his personal savings to support his candidacy. So far this cycle, he’s avoided that thanks to a more robust national fund-raising network and the pro-Romney super PAC.
But if Romney wants to keep running a Fortune 500-style campaign, he may have to withdraw from his own savings account to maintain his brand identity.
The challenge for him, though, does not appear to be resources but message and personality.
Romney has largely run a campaign focused on President Obama and the prospect of a general election fought over his economic stewardship, but improving economic indices have weakened that ground.
Meanwhile, Santorum and Gingrich have rallied conservatives by arguing that Romney’s support for the Massachusetts universal health care law - including an “ObamaCare” individual mandate for coverage - preempts one of the GOP’s best lines of attack against the incumbent Democrat.
Simultaneously, the former Pennsylvania senator and former House speaker have stirred a passion among their followers that is often lacking at Romney’s events.
The former governor and businessman says all the right things, and his events almost always come off without a glitch, but the reaction is more cerebral than emotional.
Romney gives his supporters no reason to vote against him, but so far he hasn’t given the people not naturally drawn to him a reason to vote for him, either.
Glen Johnson can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.