While Mitt Romney’s victories in Michigan and Arizona might have restored him to front-runner status, the path ahead still poses challenges as attention shifts to the 10 states up for grabs on Super Tuesday.
Beaming in his victory speech Tuesday night, Romney cracked a light-hearted, but real-headed, joke about the task now before him.
“The great thing about having so many in our family, we can cover almost every race,” he said, alluding to his five sons. “Super Tuesday, we’ll be stretched, but we’re going to find a way.”
Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, noted that Romney’s wins in Michigan and Arizona on Tuesday have righted the campaign ship for now.
“The double win is just what the doctor ordered for Romney. It’s a tonic — not just for Romney but for his donors and supporters.”
But the pressure will remain on Romney to avoid repeating past missteps.
“Of course, among Romney’s problems is that the tonic always wears off quickly, then he loses and needs another tonic,” Sabato said.
Romney’s biggest challenge on Super Tuesday will be in Ohio, which offers the truest test of his Midwestern viability yet.
Michigan, of course, was Romney’s home state and will probably be an easy win for President Obama in the fall. But Ohio is neutral ground for the GOP candidates, and one of the most important swing states in the general election. And Romney starts from behind there.
In the Buckeye State’s most recent survey, released Tuesday, Romney trails Santorum by 11 percent, and the Real Clear Politics average of Ohio polls shows him currently down by 8 points.
That’s not for lack of trying. His campaign has already begun blanketing the airwaves, and the super-PAC supporting him — Restore Our Future — began buying ad time in early February.
In fact, as a testament to just how long he’s been on the air, it was Newt Gingrich, not Rick Santorum, who received the televised wrath of the pro-Romney forces in early February. Of course, Santorum and Gingrich have also dumped money in the state, but all indications are that they’ll end up spending far less.
Outside of Ohio, there’s very little drama for Romney on Super Tuesday. He’s expected to easily win Massachusetts and Virginia, but come up short in a host of deeply Southern and heartland states such as Georgia, Tennessee and Oklahoma. According to recent polling, Romney trails in every one of those states by double digits, and none offers significant blocs of voters with whom he’s traditionally performed well.
With rough prospects on Super Tuesday, Romney will maintain that it’s all about the delegates and who’s accrued the most of them, but in fact, it will also be about a much-finer point — proving he can finally connect with voters he’d desperately need against Obama.
Thus, look for careful parsing of how he does with key blocs in Ohio and elsewhere.
In Michigan, for example, exit polls showed Santorum beating Romney with nearly every demographic traditionally defined as “blue-collar.”
Santorum won among those who didn’t have a college degree and, according to Fox News exit polls, with nearly every income group — those making less than $30,000 per year, those in the $30,000-$50,000 bracket and those in the $50,000-$100,000 group.
Santorum also thrashed Romney by nearly 20 percent among those who live in union households. All are demographic groups with whom Romney has been unable to connect, and Ohio will provide him with another chance to prove he can win over those voters.
Yet although there are red flags for Romney, there are many green ones, as well. He’s now won primaries in states that will be key battlegrounds in the general election: Florida, New Hampshire, Arizona, Nevada and to a lesser extent, Michigan. Together, those states represent nearly every region of the country, and Romney’s the only candidate who’s demonstrated that broad appeal.
Santorum has yet to figure out how to connect with white-collar suburbanites or centrist Republicans. Gingrich has failed to rally voters outside of the South and Ron Paul is still searching for his first GOP contest victory.
Having survived a scare in Michigan, Romney will look to quickly capitalize on his victory.