Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney greets supporters in Grand Junction,… (Emmanuel Dunand, AFP/Getty…)
Reporting from Washington, Grand Junction, Colo. — With no meaningful Republican presidential primaries for another three weeks, Mitt Romney is looking to extend his win streak in a trio of largely symbolic contests Tuesday.
But damage from the bruising nomination fight could be glimpsed in new polling data that showed Romney trailing President Obama in a test matchup for the fall election. The ABC-Washington Post survey, released Monday, found that a majority of voting-age Americans said that the more they heard about Romney, the less they liked him.
Romney's remaining GOP rivals are looking for a burst of badly needed publicity from Tuesday's caucuses in Minnesota and Colorado and a nonbinding "beauty contest" primary in Missouri. None of the voter tests will select delegates who are bound to support a particular candidate at the national convention, but they are the last round of contests before a three-week break.
In Missouri, where Newt Gingrich failed to qualify for the ballot, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania has his clearest shot yet at the front-runner. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) is the only other active contender opposing Romney in the state.
And in a sign that Santorum may pose the biggest threat to Romney in Minnesota, former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Romney supporter, attacked Santorum's record of supporting earmarked spending, calling him "a champion" of a Washington practice that has fallen out of favor among conservatives.
In Minnesota, "I think Mitt will be competitive but it's hard to tell who will be the person on top of that pack," Pawlenty said in a conference call arranged by the Romney campaign.
Santorum aide Hogan Gidley countered that the Romney campaign's sudden focus was prompted by new polling data suggesting that Santorum is "by far Romney's most significant opponent."
Campaigning in Grand Junction, Colo., Romney kept his focus on Obama. At a slightly faded motel on the Rockies' Western slope, where mining companies and environmentalists have battled over coal extraction, he slammed the president's energy policies.
"I share his desire to see renewable sources of energy developed," Romney said to loud applause. "But don't forget we also have to have carbon-based fuels like natural gas or oil and coal. The president said in his State of the Union address the other night that he was in favor of 'all of the above,' but then you look at the actions of his EPA and you realize they are really in favor of 'none of the above.' They hold off the development of our coal with regulations, they hold off on development of our natural gas resources, they hold off on the drilling of our oil."
The Romney campaign announced the endorsement of former California Gov. Pete Wilson, who was named honorary chairman of the state campaign. In a statement, Wilson called Romney "the most electable" Republican and predicted that he would "attract the support of Republican, independent and wise Democratic voters."
The endorsement drew a caustic reaction from Democrats, who pointed to Wilson's support for California's Proposition 187, the 1994 ballot measure that attempted to curtail state spending for illegal immigrants. The measure, largely voided by courts over Wilson's objections, inflicted long-term damage to Republican chances with the state's Latino voters.
"Mitt Romney has clearly shown Latinos who he is, and we will not forget in November," said Eliseo Medina of the Service Employees International Union in Washington.
Opinion polling in caucus states is notoriously unreliable, but Romney appears to have the edge in Colorado, where he will deliver election-night remarks. Gingrich waited until Monday to start campaigning in the state. And as if to make up for lost time, he took a guns-blazing approach upon arrival.
The former House speaker charged that as governor of Massachusetts, Romney "basically accommodated liberal Democrats" with judicial appointments and his healthcare overhaul.
"He's not a bad person, per se," Gingrich said at a rally in Golden. "But he's also not a person who goes in there with force and fundamentally changes things. And we're in a situation in which we need fundamental change."
Michael A. Memoli in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.