RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
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The Republican candidates have brought their fight to Nevada, which holds its caucuses tomorrow. Mitt Romney is the frontrunner after his decisive win over Newt Gingrich in Florida.
But as NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports, Romney emerged from that battle with his strengths and his weaknesses on full display.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Sometimes hard-fought nominating contests produce a more formidable general election candidate. That's what happened to Barack Obama in 2008. But Dan Schnur, a former Republican strategist, thinks it's too soon to tell if this Republican primary will have the same effect.
DAN SCHNUR: It's an open question whether an ongoing Romney-Gingrich fight strengthens the eventual nominee, or draws him further from the political center and makes it that much more difficult to run a competitive general election campaign in the fall.
LIASSON: Romney's been careful not to move too far to the right on most issues, with one glaring exception: immigration. Romney won big majorities of Republican Hispanics in Florida, but they were mostly Cuban and Puerto Rican.
Alfonso Aguilar of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles says Romney has hurt his ability to appeal to Hispanic voters elsewhere because of his opposition to the DREAM Act, and for suggesting all illegal immigrants self-deport.
ALFONSO AGUILAR: There are many Latinos who would consider voting for a Republican, for a conservative candidate, but who don't see those sort of statements or that sort of support as something positive. If he is the nominee, damage has already been done.
LIASSON: Aguilar's reaction to Romney is exactly what Democrats want to encourage among Hispanic voters. A Democratic superPAC is airing this Spanish-language radio ad in Nevada.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL ADVERTISEMENT)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Mitt Romney (Spanish spoken).
LIASSON: The ad blasts Romney for telling Hispanics one thing and Anglos another. And that's not the only way Democrats plan to take advantage of the vulnerabilities Romney has exposed on the campaign trail. Bill Burton, who runs a pro-Obama superPAC, says Romney's unforced errors have given him a shelf-full of material.
BILL BURTON: Number one is the various times he jokes about firing people. Number two would have to be the various times he jokes about the economy or being unemployed, and the whole rubric of his clearly not understanding the kind of anxiety that middle-class Americans are feeling,
LIASSON: Romney, who's known as a super-disciplined candidate, has made a awful lot of unforced errors: from this weeks comment that he's not concerned about the very poor, to his awkward handling of his Swiss bank accounts, beachfront home or blind trusts.
Some Republicans worry less, however, about Romney's wealth and gaffes than about the overwhelming negative turn in the Republican race. In Florida, Romney and his allies spent $15 million on ads. Only one was positive, a Spanish-language radio ad that aired just 15 times. The rest were attack ads eviscerating Newt Gingrich.
Steve Schmidt was John McCain's top strategist in 2008.
STEVE SCHMIDT: When you see this type of scorched-earth campaigning, you're really worried if your focus is beating President Obama, because you worry about the unfavorable numbers being risen to high levels among independent voters across the country.
LIASSON: In the most recent ABC-Washington Post poll, Romney's favorable ratings with swing voters dropped 18 points, from 41 to just 23 percent. And there are even signs that the enthusiasm of the Republican base might not be as strong as it was as in 2010. Turnout among Republicans has been down in every contest this year, and that's what worries Matt Kibbe of FreedomWorks, the Tea Party resource center in Washington.
MATT KIBBE: For all of the circling the wagons around Mitt Romney, there's a lot of concern behind the scenes - even amongst Republican establishment types - that he's not a terribly strong candidate. It's not as if people don't know who Mitt Romney is in Republican primary circles. So there's something wrong there.
LIASSON: But for all of Romney's weaknesses, he also has formidable advantages. The Republican Party, the Romney campaign and its superPACs appear poised to raise more money than the president and his supporters.
The political landscape this year favors a challenger. President Obama is a vulnerable incumbent with approval ratings under 50 percent. Unemployment is expected to stay over 8 percent through Election Day. And in the last few weeks, Mitt Romney has become a more aggressive candidate and a much better debater.
SCHNUR: This strongly contested Republican primary has one significant benefit for Mitt Romney: Going through this type of fire in the spring will make him a better and a more well-prepared candidate for the fall.
LIASSON: By one measure, Romney looks like he's in very good shape for the fall campaign. In national and swing-state polls, Romney and President Obama are tied.
Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.