MESA, Ariz. (AP) — Mitt Romney campaigned in Arizona on Monday, appearing at an evening rally in Mesa as he tries to build on his narrow win in the Maine caucuses over the weekend and secure the Republican presidential nomination.
Romney’s appearance in a Phoenix suburb that has been home to generations of fellow Mormons effectively starts the run-up of the state’s Feb. 28 Republican presidential primary. The Republican candidates will participate in a Feb. 22 debate in Mesa.
The former Massachusetts governor told an audience estimated by his campaign at over 2,400 that he’d champion conservative values if elected and put the nation on a sound fiscal course.
“We need America to remain a merit society, as an opportunity society,” Romney said during a 20-minute talk in an outdoor amphitheater. “I love this country as you do. I love America.”
Romney, who has yet to pull away from his GOP rivals, also urged his supporters to vote for him and to urge family and friends to do the same: “I really need your vote. I ask for your vote.”
More than 112,000 Republicans have already cast early ballots in Maricopa County, home to three of every five Arizonans.
Arizona is regarded as friendly territory for Romney, who finished a respectable second in the 2008 primary won by home-state candidate Sen. John McCain.
Many of the people who lined up to enter the amphitheater wore Romney shirts or hats. Mesa homemaker Jenny Davis said she decided early on to support Romney.
“I like the stability that he has and I prefer him to Newt Gingrich,” Davis said. “I like his family values — that is my No. 1 thing — and I think he would be very strong on national security issues and has a strong business background.”
Kim Standage, a utility company manager, said he was undecided.
“Just trying to figure out the best person to get the economy turned around and somebody who can beat Obama,” said Standage, a fifth-generation Mesa resident.
Results announced in Maine on Saturday showed Romney edging Rep. Ron Paul. Earlier last week, former Sen. Rick Santorum swept three other contests, winning in Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado.
Romney can’t afford to ignore Arizona because his rival’s wins or near-misses weaken his argument that his nomination is inevitable, said Richard Herrera, an Arizona State University associate professor of political science.
“It’s for him to lose, as it has been all along,” Herrera said.
Romney’s campaign in Arizona has the highest profile of the GOP contenders, with endorsements from numerous Republican elected officials. Those include McCain, Secretary of State Ken Bennett, Attorney General Tom Horne, state House Speaker Andy Tobin and least 20 other state legislators.
Supporters of Santorum, Paul and Gingrich all said they have active grass-roots campaigns in the state.
A campaign official for Gingrich said his campaign is finalizing arrangements for a Gingrich visit to Arizona, while officials for the Santorum and Paul campaigns said Santorum would campaign in Arizona on Feb. 21 and Paul on Feb. 23.
The date of Arizona’s Feb. 28 winner-take-all primary is set by state law, but its scheduling before April 1 violates the Republican Party’s national rules. As a result, the state’s normal allotment of 58 delegates is to be halved to 29.
Michigan will also hold a primary Feb. 28. The two primaries will then be followed by nominating contests in 10 states on March 3, also known as Super Tuesday.