Mitt Romney avoided a major political nightmare last night, narrowly edging out Rick Santorum in Michigan’s critical Republican primary.
“We didn’t win by a lot,” Romney told supporters in Michigan Tuesday night. “But we won by enough and that’s what counts.”
But while Tuesday was undoubtedly a victory for Romney, it will do little to quell doubts about the viability of his candidacy. Even with home-state advantage, Romney had to spend millions to defeat Santorum in Michigan, and still only managed to eke out a 3-point lead.
The Santorum campaign is now declaring the race a “tie,” noting that it looks like the two candidates will split the state’s 30 delegates.
“I don’t know how you look at that as anything besides this being a strong showing for Rick Santorum and anything short of a disaster for Mitt Romney,” Santorum advisor John Brabender told reporters Monday. “”If we can do this well in Romney’s home state, this bodes well for Super Tuesday.”
The pressure is now on Romney to translate momentum from last night into a string of decisive victories this month. But there is every indication that the problems Romney faced in Michigan will continue to plague his campaign as the race heads into next week’s 10 Super Tuesday contests.
Here’s a quick look at where the races stand:
Ohio (66 Delegates):
If you thought Michigan was bad, get ready for Act II of the Mitt-Rick death match. Both campaigns view Ohio as a “must-win” state on Super Tuesday, and the candidates will arrive in the state this week battle-tested and ready for a rematch.
Santorum is currently leading the state by between 7% and 11%, according to the latest polls. The former Pennsylvania Senator has a natural affinity with Ohio’s blue-collar voters, as well as with religious conservatives in the southwestern part of the state. Romney, who struggled with blue-collar voters in Michigan, is going to have to maintain focus on economic issues — and keep his rich-guy gaffes to a minimum — if he wants to win this bellwether swing state.
Negative attacks and political trickery are also bound reach new heights in the Buckeye primary, as SuperPACs supporting Santorum, Romney, Newt Gingrich, and even Barack Obama pour money into the state. Bottom Line: This is where the 2012 race could start to get really dirty and really crazy.
The South — Georgia (76), Tennessee (58), Oklahoma (43):
Michigan exit polls show that Romney is still not connecting with the GOP’s right-wing base, including evangelicals, Tea Party supporters, and voters who identify as “very conservative.” These voters make up a substantial proportion of the Republican electorate in the three Southern Super Tuesday states, making them unfriendly territory for the Mormon Northerner.
The numbers bear this out. In Georgia and Oklahoma, Romney is polling in third place behind Gingrich and Santorum. Polls in Tennessee are inconclusive, but both Gingrich and Santorum have campaigned there this month, while Romney has been largely MIA.
In the end, it looks like the only hope for Romney in the South is a Gingrich-Santorum murder-suicide. Santorum has indicated that he aims to knock Gingrich out of the running. But the former House Speaker warned Tuesday that he plans to fight back, specifically by highlighting Santorum’s labour record, a hot-button issue in the Right to Work South.
The Caucus States — Idaho (32), North Dakota (28)*:
Although Santorum has won the popular vote in three of the four Republican caucuses, his lack of campaign infrastructure probably means that most of those delegates will go to either Romney or Ron Paul, the only candidates with strong caucus field organisations.
The situation will likely be similar in North Dakota, where delegate commitments to specific candidates are voluntary. Idaho’s caucus is binding, with delegates allocated proportionally by county. Romney, Santorum, and Paul appeal to very different constituencies here — Mormon, evangelical, and student/Western libertarian, respectively — so all three have a chance of picking up delegates.
*Alaska will also start its caucuses on March 6, but results aren’t expected until later in the month.
The Romney States — Virginia (49), Massachusetts (41), Vermont (17):
These states represent Romney’s best guarantee for picking up delegates on Super Tuesday. Unsurprisingly, none of Romney’s rivals plan to compete in Massachusetts. In Virginia, Romney and Paul are the only two candidates on the ballot, with the former holding a strong lead. Paul might pick up a few delegates in Vermont, but Romney is likely to take that state as well.
Unless Romney can effectively knock each of his opponents of the race in the next week, it looks increasingly like Super Tuesday will not be the end of the Republican primary race. While Romney might be able to eke out another close victory, the possibility of another round of nail-biters underscore his still-tenuous position as the Republican frontrunner. In the end, a narrow victory in next week’s delegate races won’t be “enough” to ensure that Romney gets to the convention with the majority he needs to win.
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