With his twin triumphs in Arizona and Michigan, Mitt Romney is like the boxer who wins a round on points. He beat Rick Santorum, but his chief rival for the Republican nomination for president is still standing.
So how does Romney knock him out?
A win in Ohio -- the most important of the 10 Super Tuesday states next week -- would come close. The Buckeye State borders Santorum’s western Pennsylvania base, and it is full of the white, working-class voters who seem most animated by his campaign. Santorum won 39 percent of noncollege graduates in Michigan, according to exit polls. In other words, it’s a state that the former senator from Pennsylvania should win if he’s a legitimate threat to Romney’s march to the nomination.
A Romney victory coupled with a strong showing in most or all of the other states, while not putting the race away, would certainly erase remaining doubts about his inevitability.
“If Romney wins Ohio and also got more delegates than the others on Super Tuesday, then he’s in a commanding position in the race,” said Charlie Black, an adviser to the Romney campaign.
That’s the quick-knockout scenario, but it’s not necessarily the one that the former Massachusetts governor’s operation is planning for. They’re still preparing for the long game, collecting delegates while laying the groundwork for a general election.
The candidate signaled his new plan of attack with his victory speech on Tuesday, which he used to pivot sharply toward President Obama while all but ignoring Santorum and the other two candidates with lesser claims as contenders, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, who has won only one contest, and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who hasn’t won any. Romney didn’t mention Santorum once during his speech or during a campaign stop in Ohio the next morning, setting his rhetorical sights instead on the current White House occupant.
“He says, correctly, that he inherited a recession. And he did,” Romney said of Obama during a rally in Toledo. “He doesn't remind us, by the way, that he also inherited a Democratic House and Senate. And he was able to do whatever he wanted to do. And for two years, he put in place his plans. And look at us; we’re still, three years later, in an economy that's bumping along the bottom.”
Romney nodded to his still-standing primary rivals only obliquely, telling the crowd they had a choice between his business background and “a couple of guys who spent their career in Washington.” Even as his campaign and surrogates continue their assault on Santorum, Romney is no longer slinging mud at his opponent.
Romney reasserted control of the race by winning Arizona and Michigan, said Chip Felkel, a longtime GOP strategist, and that lets him rise above the primary fray. “That’s his sweet spot. That’s where he needs to be,” Felkel said. “Otherwise, he’s getting wrapped up in intraparty fights. Given the base level of discomfort about his bona fides, intraparty fights aren’t his friends.”
Focusing on Obama won’t erase the anti-Romney fervor that has proven so resilient this primary season. But with the panic about his candidacy abating after his twin wins, Romney can resume grinding out delegates until he reaches the 1,144 necessary for the nomination. According to data compiled by the Associated Press, Romney has 147 delegates, 63 more than Santorum, in the wake of Tuesday’s victories.
The race is likely to continue for at least another month, Black said, a contingency that Romney is prepared for.
“The governor and his staff were very smart, and they sat down a year ago and planned out a long campaign,” said Black, who predicted that the delegate math will become a near-impossible climb for Santorum by the end of March. “And they organized in all 50 states, and none of the other candidates can do that.”
Regardless whether the race ends quickly or extends to the summer, it’s in Romney’s interest to return to a position where he can again focus on the general election. Doing so will also be necessary to repair the damage wrought by a bitter GOP primary, which included a series of gaffes that brought unwanted attention to his wealth and, under pressure from more-conservative rivals, a forced march away from his safe centrist zone to more conservative positions on immigration and contraception.
The result has been a surge in Romney’s negative ratings with voters since the primary contests began on January 3, to the point where he now trails Obama in most head-to-head matchups in the polls. A Washington Post/ABC News survey, for instance, found him trailing the president by 9 percentage points, 52 percent to 43 percent, in early February, a 10-point swing toward Obama from the same poll taken in mid-January.
Romney needs to improve his standing with several key groups, said John Weaver, a GOP operative and Jon Huntsman’s former chief strategist, including working-class voters and Hispanics.
“He’s lost control of his own narrative,” said John Weaver, a GOP operative and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman’s one-time chief strategist. “They’ve got to look at what they have to do in a way that does not do further damage to their ability to win a general election. He has some deficiencies that are vital. … If he continues to go down a path like the last three weeks of hand-to-hand combat with Santorum, he’s going to be in so much of a hole in a general election that he can’t get his way out of it.”
Sarah B. Boxer contributed