Most people still think Mitt Romney will win the Republican presidential nomination. The question is whether it will be a nomination worth having.
Forced to fend off an unexpectedly strong challenge from rival Rick Santorum in his childhood home state of Michigan, Romney emerged from Tuesday’s primaries there and in Arizona with more delegates but also conspicuous vulnerabilities at a time when President Obama is gaining ground.
In Michigan, it was less of a resounding victory for Romney than a near-miss of a humiliating defeat at the hands of a toppled senator from Pennsylvania who is to the right of the Republican mainstream and running a seat-of-his-pants campaign. And that was the easy part.
In just one week, the former Massachusetts governor faces a gauntlet of 10 Super Tuesday contests, with the most competitive battlegrounds moving to Ohio and Tennessee. Polls show Santorum ahead in both states, though 45 percent of the voters in the Quinnipiac University poll in Ohio said they might change their minds. Romney is also the underdog in Southern states voting next week with strong conservative and evangelical leanings, such as Oklahoma and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s home state of Georgia.
The contests will keep Romney preoccupied with persuading the GOP’s conservative wing that he is one of them and prevent him from shifting into a general-election strategy focused on undermining President Obama’s support among moderate Democrats and independents. Romney’s standing has suffered among Americans who describe themselves as “very conservative,” according to an ABC News /Washington Post poll released on Tuesday; only 38 percent of them hold a favorable view of the ex-governor, a 14-percentage-point drop in just one week.
“He’s still in the fight of his life for the next month,’’ said Republican consultant John Weaver, who advised former Romney rival Jon Huntsman and GOP nominee John McCain in 2008. “If Romney wins the nomination, it will be because he dragged the base kicking and screaming.’’
Romney supporters portrayed Tuesday’s wins as unabashed victories and downplayed the closeness of the race in the state where he was born and his father served as governor. After Tuesday’s results, Romney now has more than double the number of delegates of his nearest competitor, Santorum.
“That’s more than a minor league win. It’s a pretty resounding result in the most delegate-rich evening of the primary so far, and a solid shot in the arm for the Romney campaign,’’ said Republican consultant Phil Musser, who is backing Romney.
It came at a price.
The competitive race in Michigan forced Romney into the awkward position of repeatedly having to defend his opposition to the federal bailout of the auto industry that is the lifeblood of the state’s middle class. Amid Romney’s somewhat tortured and ongoing explanations, General Motors announced that it had recovered enough to post record profits. On Tuesday, President Obama gloated over the bailout’s success in a speech in Washington to union members.
With Santorum attacking him from the right, Romney was forced to assert his conservative credentials in ways that could alienate young, female, and Hispanic voters in the general election. Although polls show that most Americans think employers should include birth control in their health insurance plans, Romney condemned the Obama administration for requiring church-affiliated organizations to do so. He also ran a television ad chiding Rick Santorum for backing Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to a federal Appellate judgeship before she became the first Puerto Rican member of the Supreme Court. In the most recent nationally televised debate, Romney called Arizona’s harsh crackdown on illegal immigration, which the Obama administration says is unconstitutional, a “model.’’
Romney has also provided critics with more fodder to portray him as haughty elitist, making offhand remarks that his wife drives a “couple of Cadillacs’’ and that has friends who own NASCAR teams. Even Romney acknowledged “some mistakes’’ on Tuesday before the polls closed
“Our primary has turned into one big super-PAC-like advantage for Obama,’’ Weaver said. “We’ve alienated huge blocks of vital constituencies, and no one is laying out any real positive solutions.’’
Santorum also risked limiting his party’s reach by blasting the separation of church and state, questioning the use of contraception, and calling Obama a “snob’’ for promoting higher education. His campaign was forced to admit on the eve of the election that it made automated calls urging Michigan Democrats to vote for Santorum.
“Santorum gambled with this play to turn out Democrats, and it will be seen as a strategic mistake that could turn the narrative of this race,’’ Musser said. “It’s a strike against the authenticity argument central to the rise of Rick Santorum, and I think Republicans nationally will take note of that.’’
Until Gingrich’s victory in the South Carolina primary more than one month ago, Romney had run a largely gaffe-free campaign focused on undercutting Obama’s economic stewardship, while one Republican rival after another imploded. Romney’s defeat in the South, along with the polls showing him in at risk of losing the next contest in Florida, derailed Romney’s steady, disciplined approach. He and the super PAC backing his campaign were forced to go on the attack. Then he was caught flat-footed when Santorum swept three states in one night in early February – Colorado, Missouri, and Minnesota. Dispatching Santorum has proved to be trickier than crushing Gingrich.
Romney’s showing could have been worse on Tuesday night had he not shown up Santorum in the most recent nationally televised debate. Santorum spent much of that broadcast from Arizona last week on the defensive, trying to explain away parts of his voting record.
“A win is a win,’’ Republican consultant Charlie Black, who is advising Romney, said of Tuesday’s results. “The race is going to go on for a while, but he’s back in a fairly commanding position. There will be plenty of time for him to get back on his main message and reestablish a connection with independent voters who right now are looking askance at all Republicans.’’
Romney ‘s superior organization and fundraising makes him better equipped to navigate the far-flung group of contests a week from now on Super Tuesday. The latest fundraising report in late January showed Romney with $7.7 million on hand and his super PAC with $16 million. In comparison, Santorum had less than $1.5 million, while his super PAC had about $627,000.
Romney is heavily favored to win Massachusetts, where he spent most of his career and served as governor. He can anticipate a win in Virginia, where Santorum and Gingrich didn’t qualify for the ballot. Black also noted that Romney is ahead in most of the biggest states left to vote that delegates on a winner-take-all basis.
“Santorum has got to pick his spots,’’ Black said. “He doesn’t have time to get organized effectively.’’
While Romney has sought to lower expectations in states he didn’t expect to win like Iowa and South Carolina, there was no pretense about his intentions in Michigan. “They had to win this or else,’’ said Republican pollster Ed Goeas, who advised Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota before she dropped out of the race.
Nevertheless, even before the polls closed, Romney was scrambling to downplay Michigan in comparison to Massachusetts. Romney campaigns Wednesday in Ohio, while Santorum appears in Tennessee.
“Tuesday’s results will certainly stop some of the hand-wringing over Romney,’’ Goeas said. “The Romney campaign has had a lot of ups and downs, and I haven’t seen any signs of them pushing the panic button. They systematically look forward, and at some point he should get credit for the sturdiness of his campaign.’’