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Romney builds bigger, richer campaign for Obama fight

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - For Mitt Romney, now the hard part begins. With the Republican presidential nomination all but clinched, Romney plans an aggressive strategy to gird for an uphill battle to unseat Democratic President Barack Obama.

Over the next month and beyond, Romney will raise badly needed cash, seek to shore up support among conservatives and begin campaigning in battleground states that will be key to who wins the November 6 general election.

The former Massachusetts governor faces a multitude of challenges in preparing for the general election but one of the biggest is to consolidate support among conservatives suspicious of him and to make sure the party speaks with one voice.

To unify the party and campaign apparatus, Romney campaign manager Matt Rhoades has directed a number of key campaign advisers to serve as liaisons to the Republican National Committee. That will give Romney access to party structure in battleground states and hundreds of campaign staff.

Among Romney loyalists who will play key roles are Kevin Madden, a long-serving adviser and TV surrogate, and Brian Jones, a former communications director for the RNC and for John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign.

"We will ensure that our finance, political and communication teams are fully synchronized," said RNC Chairman Reince Priebus, who is well-regarded within the Romney camp.

An expensive battle is brewing for the next six months of campaigning. Romney has about 15 fundraising events planned over the next month, an adviser said, the first steps in what will be a relentless drive to raise the hundreds of millions of dollars necessary for a difficult contest against Obama.

New York and California will be key destinations for money-raising. Romney will travel to the Washington area next week to raise cash.

A large-scale effort is underway to increase the staffing of the Romney campaign from about 100 to up to 400 people.

"The campaign is almost going to increase in scale overnight into a billion-dollar organization," said Steve Schmidt, campaign manager for 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain. "All of this has to be done quickly.

"There are two finite commodities that you're managing in a political campaign," he said. One is time and one is money. You can't waste either. And you have to raise a lot of the latter."

STAFFING UP

At the same time, Romney will be working to shore up support from those conservatives with serious doubts about his candidacy. His last two conservative challengers, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, may help in this effort.

Gingrich plans to endorse Romney next week when he suspends his campaign. Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond said negotiations were underway with the Romney campaign on an endorsement and whether the two men would appear together.

Gingrich has offered to campaign for Romney, and if he does, his could be a valuable voice for drumming up enthusiasm from conservatives who, if nothing else, are united in their desire to oust Obama from the White House.

The Romney camp has also been in talks with Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator who was Romney's last major conservative obstacle to the nomination. Romney adviser Madden told MSNBC a meeting between Romney and Santorum is expected "in the very, very near future."

To reach out to evangelical Christians who have been slow to embrace him, Romney plans to speak on May 12 at Liberty University, an evangelical college in Lynchburg, Virginia, led by Christian right leader Jerry Falwell.

To fend off Obama's efforts to define him in a negative way, Romney plans to hit back hard.

The foundation was laid for this in Romney's well-received speech in New Hampshire on Tuesday night in which he was sharply critical of Obama's handling of the U.S. economy and asked voters whether they were better off now than they were when Obama took office three and a half years ago.

"It's still about the economy, and we're not stupid," Romney said.

Romney will take this message to Ohio on Friday, the first of many stops in fewer than a dozen battleground states where the election will be decided, a list that also includes such destinations as Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Colorado and Virginia.

Romney lags Obama in these battleground states, making them essential sites for campaigning.

(Additional reporting by Sam Youngmana; editing by Todd Eastham)

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