It was a pretty good night for former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, whose presumed frontrunner status has been looking a little shaky in recent days.
Romney gained a comfortable victory in the Arizona primary, beating his closest rival, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum by more than 20 points.
He also narrowly avoided a humiliating defeat in his home state, Michigan, edging out Santorum, 41 percent to 38 percent.
“We didn’t win by a lot, but we won by enough, and that’s all that matters,” Romney told cheering supporters in Novi, Michigan, once the race was called in his favor.
But that was more spin than reality. In the Michigan primary, the size of the win matters a great deal.
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In Michigan, each Congressional district is counted separately. Romney won just half of the 14 races, Santorum won six, with one still to be decided. In addition, the overall winner will get two additional delegates, although those, too, have yet to be apportioned.
So Romney picked up 14 delegates from Michigan, Santorum 12, with four still up in the air.
These were unimpressive results for a state where Romney was born and grew up, and where his father was a well-respected, three-term governor. A loss might well have crippled him; a less-than-stellar victory keeps him in the race, but does little to burnish his image.
Arizona, by contrast, is a “winner take all” state, and Romney added 29 delegates to his column Tuesday night.
A candidate needs 1144 delegates to win the nomination in the first ballot at the Republican convention, which takes place in Tampa, Florida in August.
At present, Romney is out in front, with 157 delegates. Santorum follows with 52, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich has 30, and Texas Congressman Ron Paul has 15.
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But what had at first seemed a juggernaut is now a slow-moving caravan.
Embarrassing gaffes, combined with strong showings from various rivals and a vicious, bruising campaign have dimmed Romney’s aura of inevitability. With just a week to go before “Super Tuesday,” when 10 states go to the polls to pick their favorites, few would argue that the former Massachusetts governor is a sure bet.
“I am pretty disgusted with the whole race,” said Curt Love, a social worker in Detroit. He said he liked Santorum’s position on social issues, but was turned off by the tenor of the debate.
This “pox on both your houses” attitude translated into a fairly low turnout in Michigan; fewer than 1 million votes were cast in a state with more than 7 million registered voters. The primary was open, meaning anyone could take a ballot, regardless of party affiliation.
There was some talk of “crossover voting” — Santorum’s campaign had openly appealed to Democrats to come out and cast their ballots for him. There is no hard data on how many Democrats turned up, or what their motivation might have been, but it was unlikely to have changed the overall results.
There have been similar instances of “mischief-makers” in other open primaries such as New Hampshire and South Carolina, where Democrats seeking to derail the Republican race voted for whoever was likely to give Romney the hardest time.
Santorum had surged in the polls in mid-February, and some had predicted that he would take Michigan. Romney focused his attention, and his campaign money, on discrediting the former senator from Pennsylvania.
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But Romney’s biggest problem seemed at times to be Romney himself. After a much-ridiculed speech praising Michigan’s trees, which are all “just the right height,” he sought to boost his standing with auto workers by revealing that his wife, Ann, drove “a couple of Cadillacs.”
Another attempt to look like a regular guy backfired in Daytona, Florida, when Romney told the Associated Press how much he loved NASCAR, adding “I have some great friends who are NASCAR team owners.”
In addition, Romney’s well-funded campaign has specialized in attack ads directed at his opponent of the day; most observers credit negative campaigning in Michigan with slowing Santorum’s momentum, but it also imparts a mean-spiritedness to the Romney team that does little to endear him to voters.
Just one week remains before Super Tuesday, when more than 400 delegates are up for grabs. Romney will have to do well in his other home state – Massachusetts – as well as important swing states like Ohio and Tennessee in order to maintain his movement forward.
Georgia is the big prize next week, with 76 delegates at stake. But that is home to Newt Gingrich, who has been running hard there.
Ron Paul, who came in third in Michigan with 11.6 percent of the vote, will go head-to-head with Romney in Virginia next Tuesday; neither Santorum nor Gingrich amassed enough signatures to get on the ballot.
By any measure, there is a long way to go before the Republican race is finally decided.