Mitt Romney knew John McCain would be a tough competitor on Super Tuesday.
What he didnt count on was Mike Huckabees strong showing, which stopped Romney from staying close to McCain in the delegate chase for the nomination.
Romney, however, vowed to continue on stay in the race, and his spokesman played down Huckabees victories.
A Southern candidate who appeals on social issues had an appeal to a Southern constituency on social issues, spokesman Kevin Madden said last night. Its not a surprise.
The contrast between them is clear, he said.
The case were going to make to Republican voters is that Governor Romney is the full spectrum conservative, whereas Mike Huckabee is only a social conservative.
Romney and his inner circle plan to huddle today at the campaigns North End headquarters and consider their next steps.
They are still recovering from a grueling 38 hours of nonstop campaigning that Romney hoped would keep him in contention for the Republican nomination, Romney logged more than 5,000 miles on a coast-to-coast, adrenaline-fueled, get-every-last-vote-possible campaign blitz that took him from Nashville to Atlanta to Oklahoma City to Long Beach, Calif., to Charleston, W. Va., to Boston.
By the end, he was exhausted and looking forward to a hot bath.
He had bounced from the low of accusations that he had insulted former senator Bob Dole to the high of seeing his name on a ballot for president.
The longest leg of his trip from Atlanta to California was scheduled at the last minute to allow Romney one more chance to turn out supporters in a state that was crucial to his chances of stopping McCain.
As his chartered plane crossed the Rocky Mountains Monday night, with the traveling press and his staff in tow, Romney grabbed a pillow and a blanket and talked about trying to catch some shuteye on the floor of the plane, in the space underneath the tray tables.
Its been a while since I slept on the floor, he joked. Usually, if Im in trouble, I sleep on the sofa.
Before long, his plane landed in Long Beach and he was greeted by 500 enthusiastic supporters in an airplane hangar. He took the youngest of his 11 grandchildren, 2-month-old Nathan, in his arms, and took the stage to roaring applause.
His sister Jane and brother Scott were among many relatives there cheering.
Half the crowd out there was my family, Romney said.
After the rally, Romney climbed back on his plane, and took his usual seat up front, near his long-time friend Bob White and senior adviser from Massachusetts, Ronald C. Kaufman. Romney was reading a hardcover, The War of Ideas: Jihadism against Democracy, by the Lebanese scholar Walid Phares.
Most reporters and staffers dozed during the four-hour red-eye flight to West Virginia, which landed at 5 a.m.
Perhaps too wired by the looming 21-state contest just hours away, he did not sleep a wink.
After checking into a Holiday Inn in Charleston, he went on Fox News and was asked about a letter Dole wrote on Monday to radio talk show icon Rush Limbaugh, urging him to refrain from attacking McCain.
Well, its probably the last person I would have wanted to have write a letter for me, Romney said.
I think there are a lot of folks who tend to think that maybe John McCains race is a bit like Bob Doles race.
McCain immediately demanded an apology, calling Romneys comments about a World War II hero disgraceful.
Romney refused, explaining that he admires Dole but sees echoes of Doles failed 1996 run for president in McCains campaign.
Like McCain, he said, Dole was embraced by Republicans because he was the one who waited in line the longest, who deserved the nomination, whod been in the Senate the longest, and that I dont believe will be a successful strategy in this process.
Back on his plane, Romney tried to call Dole, but only reached an aide.
Two-and-a-half hours later, he and his wife, Ann, arrived at Belmont Town Hall, to applause from 30 neighbors. Once inside, A town worker showed them the staircase to the voting booths.
We know our way, Mitt Romney said.
Been here 35 years, Ann Romney said.
After they voted, they headed down the staircase. Mitt Romney marveled at the moment.
Thats pretty fun, he said. First time Ive ever voted for myself for president.
On a hill several hundred yards from Town Hall, the couple reflected a bit more.
It was a great honor and very humbling to think that weve come to a point in life where our friends have rallied around us in such an extraordinary way that we have prospects of becoming the nominee, Mitt Romney said.
We have a lot of work to do before that happens, of course.
Michael Levenson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.