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In race with Santorum, Romney’s got organizational edge

Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum face a daunting calendar in the months ahead: a set of far-flung primaries that offers little chance for a knockout punch as they battle for the 1,144 delegates needed to clinch the GOP presidential nomination.

In that long slog, little will matter more than an efficient organization and a robust treasury. And in those key areas, the contrast between the two leading GOP contenders could not be more stark.

Romney has built an operation unrivaled in its vigilance and precision, which has allowed him to raise more money, reach more voters and rack up more delegates than any other candidate. Santorum has reveled in his paper-clip-and-baling-wire effort — relying on grass-roots supporters and low-dollar donors to propel his campaign.

The contrast was especially apparent on election night Tuesday as results rolled in from 10 states. While the Romneys were whisked home to suburban Belmont, Mass., for a quick dinner — chicken marsala prepared by their eldest son and his wife — supporters fanned out on plush couches and at cocktail tables adjacent to a chandeliered ballroom in Boston’s Westin Copley Square hotel. High-dollar donors mingled in the suites upstairs.

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There were mini hot dogs, hamburger sliders and soft pretzels in warming dishes. When Romney won Massachusetts, his hired band, Sweet Tooth and the Sugarbabies, struck up “Sweet Caroline,” a nightly fixture at Red Sox games. The former Massachusetts governor delivered his remarks using two prompters, which the campaign brings in when he tries out a new speech.

Santorum’s headquarters was at a high school in Steubenville, Ohio, not far from the Pennsylvania steel town where he grew up. Vending machines were the only option for sodas or snacks. Decorations were spare: one massive American flag behind a podium bearing his “Made in America” logo. The former Pennsylvania senator, his family and his aides watched returns on a laptop.

“We’re in a high school gymnasium,” Santorum told the crowd. “We just came from our war room, which doubles as a weight room for the high school. I was pumping a little iron to get a little psyched for coming out here. This is our roots.”

While election nights are mostly for show, they offer a window into a campaign’s organization and finances — and in this case, its ability to compete with the well-funded machine of President Obama. Through February, Romney had raised $75.2 million to Santorum’s $15.7 million, according to their campaigns.

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Santorum has inspired passion among his supporters that Romney has been unable to replicate — his win in Kansas on Saturday was a testament to that fervor — but Romney’s campaign has continually pointed to the delegate chase. He leads Santorum by more than 200.

During a briefing with reporters last week, senior Romney advisors noted that he had been awarded 53% of the delegates so far and that Santorum would have to win 65% of the remaining delegates to catch up.

But Santorum says the Romney campaign’s numbers don’t add up, in part because there are still many uncommitted delegates. “Most people don’t understand the math,” Santorum told reporters Friday night in Kansas, according to the Washington Post. “You just wait and see how this thing shakes out.”

Santorum’s camp believes he has one path to the GOP nomination: Newt Gingrich bowing out. The former senator’s advisors insist they would never urge the former House speaker to leave the race, but they hope voters will do that work for them.

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“Rick Santorum has shown that he can win in the Midwest, he can win in the West, he can win in the South,” said John Brabender, Santorum’s senior strategist. “It’s time for conservatives to say, ‘Look, we’re going to rally behind one candidate.’ ”

But Gingrich is not the only obstacle for Santorum. Many Republican voters have said in interviews that they ultimately backed Romney because his campaign has demonstrated the polish and wherewithal to face Obama.

The Romney campaign has delivered those cues not just through fundraising, but through the rapid response of its war room and his aides’ attention to detail at events.

On Thursday at the Port of Pascagoula in Mississippi, Romney spoke about energy policy before a backdrop of towering oil rigs while a tugboat idled in the water bearing a large “Romney for President” sign — props that ensured perfect pictures. The next morning at a farmers market, he was flanked by two gleaming tractors and a wagon full of bright-eyed seventh-grade government students, who sat on hay bales holding Romney signs.

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At Santorum events, sometimes there is no music, and sound systems can be spotty. Last week in Blue Ash, Ohio, a microphone cut out twice on Santorum, who drew laughs when he turned to audio-visual crew members and asked, “Are you guys Romney supporters?”

Romney’s formidable opposition research shop has forced Santorum to deal with such issues as his ties to former Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, who is reviled by conservatives, and his work bringing home federal money for expensive projects in his state.

Although Romney has dealt with his own set of self-inflicted problems, his campaign has managed to keep Santorum on the defensive, in part because Santorum’s operation is returning fire with a smaller staff than is found on many state-level campaigns. Santorum’s camp relies largely on the media to find documents and video from Romney’s past, such as statements Romney made in 2009 about healthcare reform that only recently emerged as an election controversy.

Santorum talks about his lack of consultants as a badge of honor. When asked how he was doing in Michigan on the day of the primary, he shrugged: “I’m not a pollster. We don’t even have a pollster.”

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Romney has had a traveling press secretary for months; Santorum’s spokeswoman began traveling with him on the day of the Michigan primary. Romney’s press corps accompanies him on chartered flights, following a schedule so precise that he has begun several recent events 45 minutes early. Reporters covering Santorum must chase him on commercial flights, which has meant less coverage.

Supporters for both candidates believe their campaigns — whether powered by passion or organizational might — will ultimately prevail. Two nuns watching returns at Santorum’s election night party in Steubenville said they were putting their faith in a higher power.

“I’m not worried,” said Sister Maria Claire. “The Lord is in control.”

maeve.reston@latimes.com

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seema.mehta@latimes.com


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