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Campaign 2012 | As President Obama prepares for the fall campaign, new party rules drag out the GOP primary race and keep Republicans Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum focused on fighting each other. Will the battle dampen GOP hopes in November?

Issue: "The battle," March 24, 2012

Every Monday morning for the last five weeks, David French has followed his usual routine, with one exception: He fasts from eating to focus on praying for the presidential election.

The evangelical Christian-who's also an attorney with the American Center for Law and Justice-says his weekly fast isn't connected directly to his other focus: trying to convince evangelicals to vote for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. "It isn't about praying for Romney to win," said French, organizer of Evangelicals for Mitt, a pro-Romney website that invites others to join the fast. "It's about praying for all the candidates and the future of the country."

French isn't the only one praying. Prayer groups for other GOP candidates have sprouted up around the internet, including groups devoted to praying for specific candidates to prevail. "Intercessors for Newt" encourages supporters to pray one hour a week for Newt Gingrich.

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Elsewhere, "We Pick Rick" encourages prayer for Rick Santorum. Posted prayers piled up ahead of the slate of GOP primaries on March 6 dubbed Super Tuesday. A Feb. 29 prayer posted by supporter Jeremy Lippert said: "Please give us the leader that is best for our country. Please give us Rick Santorum-be it your will. In Jesus Name, Amen."

Less than a week later, it still wasn't clear which leader would prevail. Though Romney carried six of the 10 states on Super Tuesday, his most important win rang hollow: The former Massachusetts governor won the crucial swing state of Ohio by a razor-thin margin, edging Santorum by 1 percentage point, despite outspending his opponent 4-to-1 in the state.

And though Romney opened a substantial lead in the number of delegates he's secured ahead of the Republican National Convention slated for August, he still faced the possibility of a long slog: By the end of Super Tuesday, Romney had grabbed at least 419 delegates. (Second place Santorum had at least 178.)

In the tumultuous battle for the GOP nomination, dramatic lines mark the field: The top candidate battles, the underdogs plot strategy, and the incumbent president quietly mounts a reelection campaign that promises a greater war that's just months away.

If this year's GOP contest seems prolonged, it's by design. During a 2010 meeting in Kansas City, Mo., members of the Republican National Committee voted to change the party's rules for awarding delegates: The new rules require all states holding presidential primaries or caucuses in March to award delegates proportionally, instead of on a winner-take-all basis. Candidates win delegates based on the districts they win in a particular state. For example, though Romney won the popular vote in Ohio, he snagged only 35 of the state's delegates. Santorum won 21.

Some Republicans have criticized the new rules, saying they prolong the nominating contest and bruise the party by keeping GOP opponents locked in heated battles for votes. But proponents of the new system say the longer process gives voters in more states an opportunity to cast meaningful primary votes by lessening the chance that a handful of states choose the nominee in just a few weeks.

The idea isn't unprecedented. Though the Democratic Party follows its own set of rules, the party's nominating contest was famously prolonged in 2008: Obama and current Secretary of State Hillary Clinton battled for the party's nomination until June. Some experts say the longer contest built enthusiasm among Democrats and increased voter turnout for Obama in the general election.

Even if that's true, there's a crucial difference between 2008 and 2012: An incumbent president wasn't running during the last election. Candidates in both parties had more time to raise funds and prepare for a general election. The dynamic today: Obama has been preparing for reelection for four years.

That reality shows up starkly in the president's massive fundraising totals. Obama's campaign reported that through Jan. 31, 2012, it had raised $140.2 million. By March 1, the president had attended 100 fundraisers since announcing his bid for reelection last April.

Romney-the top fundraiser in the GOP-had raised $63.4 million. Texas congressman Ron Paul-who hadn't won the popular vote in any primaries by Super Tuesday-raised $31 million in the same time period.

Perhaps most interesting: The candidate posing the greatest threat to Romney's frontrunner status raised the least amount of money. Santorum reported raising $6.7 million by the end of January. (After a string of primary wins in February, the Santorum campaign reported a surge in fundraising, saying it took in nearly $9 million in February alone.)

But money isn't the president's only advantage. While Republican candidates have spent months appearing in televised debates and focusing on winning primaries, the Obama campaign has been re-engaging a huge grassroots network of volunteers and supporters already in its system, and out-hiring Republican campaigns in states key to winning the general election.

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