By John Whitesides
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Mitt Romney's narrow win in Michigan is unlikely to ease lingering doubts about his candidacy or head off the possibility of a long and divisive presidential nominating fight that is damaging Republican chances in November's general election.
The close result in Michigan at least temporarily returned Romney to his frontrunner status and averted an outbreak of panic among Republicans worried that staunch social conservative Rick Santorum could doom the party in the November election.
But Romney's struggle to narrowly capture the state where he was once a big favorite highlighted questions about his own inability to connect with voters, and simply shifts the fight down the road to a new round of battlegrounds in 10 "Super Tuesday" states next week.
"Everyone can breathe a sigh of relief and Romney gets a little momentum heading into next week, but it doesn't change much," Republican strategist Ron Bonjean said. "This is going to be a long, drawn-out marathon. It feels like a political death march."
The state-by-state Republican race goes national now with 22 contests in March, including the state of Washington on Saturday and 10 contests next Tuesday led by a primary in the crucial general election state of Ohio.
Ohio looms as the next big battleground in the constantly shifting Republican nominating struggle. Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, and Santorum, the former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, will face off again there.
Santorum is ahead in early polls in Ohio, where Romney will try again to find a way to appeal to conservatives who distrust him for his support in liberal Massachusetts for abortion rights and a healthcare overhaul similar to President Barack Obama's federal plan.
Multimillionaire Romney has seen his negatives rise in polls as he has unleashed attacks on his rivals and reminded voters of his superrich status with recent comments about his wife's two Cadillacs and his friends who own NASCAR teams.
'WE DON'T LIKE ANY OF THEM'
His struggles to connect with social conservatives in states like South Carolina, which he lost to rival Newt Gingrich, and with blue-collar Midwestern conservatives in places like Iowa, Missouri and Minnesota, where Santorum beat him, have raised doubts among senior Republicans about his strength against Obama in November.
Obama's poll numbers against his Republican rivals strengthened nationally and in Michigan as the primary campaign rolled on, and polls show a growing number of Republicans are dissatisfied with the field of contenders.
"The longer this goes on, Republican voters are saying 'We don't like any of them,'" Steve Schmidt, campaign manager for John McCain in 2008, said on MSNBC.
"The net result of all this is a very pessimistic Republican Party - Washington people went from very confident a few months ago about beating President Obama to where they are today, which is very pessimistic," he said.
A Santorum win in Michigan would have unleashed another round of speculation among dissatisfied Republicans about new candidates jumping in the race or a brokered convention in Tampa, Florida, in August.
Unlike the 2008 Democratic nominating fight between Obama and Hillary Clinton, which lasted until June as Democrats chose between two popular contenders, the Republicans fight threatens to go the distance because none of the contenders have been strong enough to land a knockout blow.
Romney overcame what had been a big deficit in Michigan by unleashing a flood of negative attacks on Santorum, who turned the campaign debate in the last few weeks toward hot-button social issues like birth control, religion and abortion.
Romney, who also easily won the Arizona primary along with Michigan on Tuesday, has now won six of the first 11 contests in the Republican battle to pick a nominee to face Obama in the November 6 general election.
Romney's financial and organizational advantage will help him as the contests come more quickly and in more states, and he continued to build a lead in the race for the 1,144 delegates needed to win the nomination.
But he will face questions about his general election viability against Obama until he can prove his appeal to conservatives and win a state in the South, the Republican general election stronghold.
Romney struggled again with conservatives in Michigan. Exit polls showed about six of every 10 voters described themselves as conservative. Santorum won with self-described strong conservatives, although Romney did better with those who said they were only somewhat conservative.
"Until he figures out how to communicate with conservatives, he's going to have to keep fighting state by state and really having to slog it out to the nomination," Republican strategist Ford O'Connell said.
(Editing by Alistair Bell and Eric Walsh)