The predominant storyline heading into Tuesday’s Republican primaries in Arizona and Michigan was that the GOP nominating contest is thoroughly muddled, that Mitt Romney is a historically weak front-runner, and that this contest is likely to be decided at the convention.
There is still evidence for all these contentions, but on Feb. 28 the outlines of a new narrative emerged. Romney has taken all the punches his Republican rivals and mischief-making Democrats can throw at him—not to mention those he’s thrown at himself—and came out of it as the only viable candidate in the GOP field.
In the first 11 caucuses and primaries, Romney has netted the most votes, carried the biggest and most important states, raised the most money, and garnered the most endorsements—all while amassing a significant lead in delegates.
In a four-man race Tuesday, he won a huge plurality in Arizona, besting Rick Santorum by a nearly 2-1 margin, with Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul finishing up the track. His home state of Michigan, which Romney won by about three percentage points, was much closer, but considering the fact that he was down there by nine points only last week, Romney was pleased to win by any margin.
“What a night!” a relieved-sounding Romney gushed in his Michigan victory speech. “We didn’t win by a lot, but we won by enough.”
Until Tuesday, no Republican governor had seen the candidate he or she had endorsed actually win in that state in 2012. But now, both Michigan’s Rick Snyder and Arizona’s Jan Brewer can make that claim.
“Governor Romney is on a great path to victory,” Snyder proclaimed as the vote totals rolled in, while proclaiming Michigan “the comeback state.” It may not last long. Washington state holds caucuses on Saturday, and 10 more states, including the all-important Ohio, hold their contests next week on “Super Tuesday.”
“Washington, here we come!” proclaimed Ann Romney as she introduced her husband to the crowd at the candidate’s headquarters in Novi, Mich. “We’re going to take back America, and we’re going to let this guy do it.”
It wasn’t clear whether Mrs. Romney meant Washington state, or Washington, D.C., but either way, the Romneys indicated that they are aware this contest will continue. “We’ve got four candidates all battling it out,” Romney said when it was his turn to claim Tuesday’s double-barrel victory. “This isn’t going to be over in a day or two.”
That was a nice way of saying that the palpable ill will among the candidates, not to mention the rampant egos loose in the 2012 campaign, suggests that none of Romney’s rivals will get out soon. But in winning all 29 of Arizona’s delegates Tuesday night and winning about half of Michigan’s 30, Romney now has more delegates than Santorum, Gingrich and Paul put together.
Whether he can continue the momentum he earned last night is anyone’s guess, but there are several positive signs for Romney—and a couple of negative ones. On the plus side for the front-runner, it has become clear that Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich lack the deep pockets and broad-cased appeal for a truly national campaign effort. Gingrich, who has confidently predicted Romney’s demise for the better part of two months, is now reduced to angling for a Super Tuesday win in Georgia, the site of his old congressional district, but a place he never ran in statewide.
The Super Tuesday calendar for Santorum looks more promising, although there’s certainly a possibility that the aroma of some of his malodorous moves in Michigan will trail him to the Buckeye State.
Santorum started off his dreadful last week by using excessive Senate jargon during the Feb. 22 Arizona debate and grousing later that Romney and Paul were ganging up on him. Later in the week, as Romney closed the gap on him in Michigan, Santorum suggested that President Obama’s emphasis on ensuring the availability of college to young Americans was a bad idea. Santorum suggested that it wasn’t just an elitist concept (“What a snob,” Santorum said of Obama), but a subversive one—a veritable plot to indoctrinate young Americans into the evils of liberalism.
The former Pennsylvania senator followed up that claim by asserting that John F. Kennedy’s famous 1960 speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on the separation of church and state—and the independence of Catholic politicians from the dictates of Rome—made him want to “throw up.”
That surprising sentiment cost him the Catholic vote in Michigan—and ensured that Arizona would be a rout—but Santorum wasn’t finished offending Republican voters in Michigan. On Tuesday, a series of robo-calls went out from his campaign to Democratic voters in the state decrying Romney’s opposition to the federal government’s 2009 bailout of General Motors, and inviting Democrats to vote for Santorum in the state’s open primary.
There were at least three things wrong with this gambit.
First, it directly aligned Santorum with several vocal troublemakers in the Democratic Party’s left wing, who had announced their plans to manipulate Michigan’s primary by voting for Santorum, the candidate they liked least, in order to complicate Romney’s life. This alienated some conservative Michigan Republicans, including the governor, who noted that Santorum had essentially affiliated himself with people who were “abusing” the democratic process.
Secondly, it was overtly hypocritical: Santorum’s stance on the bailouts does not differ from Romney’s.
Finally, it’s a tactic that Santorum decried only last month. “We want the activists of the party, the people who make up the backbone of the Republican Party, to have a say in who our nominee is—as opposed to a bunch of people who don’t even identify themselves as Republicans picking our nominee,” he said then. He agitated for closed primaries with only Republicans allowed to take part, “because it’s the Republican nomination, not the independent nomination or the Democratic nomination.”
When called on his duplicity Tuesday, Santorum responded by essentially hurling insults at Romney. “That’s what bullies do,” he said. “When you hit ’em back, they whine.” Last night, in his concession speech, Santorum did not mention Romney by name, did not congratulate him, and did not really acknowledge that he’d even lost in either Arizona or Michigan.
As for Romney, he was understandably buoyed last night, but his loyalists are hoping their guy will cease his odd competition with Santorum to see who can star as the butt of the most jokes by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Romney’s latest foray as unpaid gag writer for those two comedians was to declare that although he doesn’t follow NASCAR all that closely, he has some “great friends who are NASCAR team owners.”
Like most of Romney’s gaffes, this was utterly unforced, and it concerned his family’s wealth. So, no, he’s not a great natural candidate. But he’s the best the Republicans have at this time, and on Tuesday night, he showed that to the world.
This story was originally published by RealClearPolitics.
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