Primary becomes Romney referendum

Primary becomes Romney referendum

The most important contest of the Republican nomination battle is just 24 hours away, with the fight for Michigan seen as pivotal in determining the party’s nominee.

For the two leading contenders, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, the stakes could not be higher. If Romney were to win Michigan convincingly — and attain a victory in Arizona, which also votes on Tuesday and where he is favored — he will have cleared perhaps the last real hurdle to clinching the nomination. 

But if Santorum were to defeat Romney in the latter’s home state, it would shift the dynamics of the race in a fundamental way. Doubts about Romney’s ability to seal the deal with Republican voters would likely reach a feverish level. 

“If [Romney] should lose Michigan, I think it would be a paper cut. But he has had several paper cuts,” said Michigan Republican consultant Denise DeCook. “At what point does it become a big bleed?”

In such a scenario, Santorum would have proven his ability to withstand the kind of attacks from the former Massachusetts governor that have sunk other would-be rivals. And he would have displayed in the most dramatic way the power of his blue-collar economic message and fervent social conservatism.

One way or another, the impact of the result will also be magnified by the proximity of  Super Tuesday on March 6 when 10 states vote, including delegate-rich prizes such as Ohio and Georgia. Either candidate could ride Michigan momentum to a defining Super Tuesday performance.

The race remains both close and turbulent. Many Republican voters, both in Michigan and nationwide, seem torn between a candidate, in Romney, whose convictions they doubt but whose electability seems relatively clear; and an alternative, in Santorum, whose principles are crystal clear but whose ideological rigidity might limit his appeal in a general election.

Santorum had been catapulted into a big lead following his Feb. 7 triple whammy of wins in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri. One poll, only two weeks ago, indicated he was leading by 15 points in Michigan, causing serious consternation among those Republicans who fear he would be destined to lose heavily to President Obama in November’s general election.

Since then, Romney has winnowed the gap in Michigan, and has edged into the lead in several polls. He has recaptured some momentum, helped by his significant financial advantage, which he has deployed in TV ads accusing Santorum of being a Washington insider and unreliable on fiscal issues. A widespread perception that he bested Santorum in the last debate, held last Wednesday in Arizona, also aided Romney.

“I think Santorum hurt himself badly by giving Romney so much ammunition on issues like earmarks, support for [former] Sen. [Arlen] Specter and contraception,” Republican consultant Ron Bonjean said about the debate. “He gave the Romney attack machine so much ammunition.”

But in the final run-in to such a fiercely fought contest, the ground can seem to shift hour by hour. On Friday, for example, Romney’s high-profile economic speech to the Detroit Economic Club misfired. 

Part of the problem was the peculiar decision to hold the event in cavernous Ford Field, where a crowd of around 1,000 appeared tiny. (The stadium’s capacity is about 65,000.) 

“Judging from pictures, looks like Mitt pinned himself in inside the 20,” Obama adviser David Axelrod tweeted shortly afterward.

Another, potentially more telling error came when Romney remarked that his wife Ann drives “a couple of Cadillacs,” further fueling the critique that his vast wealth renders him out of touch with most Americans.

Santorum, who has been buffeted by a number of controversies concerning his views on social issues, had already been trying to emphasize economic questions. 

On the same day as Romney’s Ford Field faux-pas, Santorum’s campaign released a new statewide TV ad asserting that Romney is “not on the side of Michigan workers.” That evening, Santorum visited Lincoln Park to outline his economic plan for the first 100 days of his presidency. He once again emphasized his modest roots, describing himself as “an Italian guy from a steel town who grew up understanding what makes this country great.”

In the judgment of many observers, Santorum is wise to make the shift.

Michigan Republican strategist Greg McNeilly said: “Santorum [had] got really off message. Michigan voters know this is a jobs election. When Santorum talks about his blue-collar roots he does well, but the earned media, and the channels through which voters receive their information, got plugged up with these secondary issues.”

The Michigan battle is so important in part because the national picture is in such fine balance. Santorum has a small but significant lead in most national polls, and that pattern, deepened by a Wolverine State win, would play havoc with the Romney camp’s argument that their man is the all-but-inevitable choice.

But serious doubts remain about whether Santorum really has it within his power to clinch the nomination. In The Hill Poll, likely voters who were asked to name the probable nominee, putting aside their personal preferences, opted heavily for Romney. 

Fifty-one percent of all likely voters said Romney would become Obama’s opponent, compared to 21 percent for Santorum. (Victories for Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul were each predicted by 8 percent of likely voters.)

The Hill Poll also found little to differentiate the two front-runners on likability grounds. Asked whether they would prefer to have a meal with Romney or Santorum, 34 percent went for Santorum and 32 percent for Romney.  Among Republicans, however, Romney had a 43 percent to 39 percent edge.

One thing seems certain: A Santorum victory in Michigan would ensure a protracted fight for the nomination. And that is a prospect that Republican insiders view with distinctly mixed feelings.

Veteran strategist Charlie Black, who backs Romney but has no formal role with the campaign, said while he is “hearing a lot of talk” about the damage that could be done to the party in such a scenario, “There really is no correlation, historically, between how early you claim the nomination and your chances of winning in November.”

Bonjean, however, argued that if there were “a loss [for Romney] in Michigan and a division of Super Tuesday states, we are talking several months of a continued struggle for delegates’ votes. I don’t think it is helpful.”

With just one day to go, all predictions about the outcome in Michigan need to come with heavy caveats. McNeilly  pointed out that even apparently random factors such as the weather could have a major impact. Bad weather could depress turnout, which would likely help Santorum, he said. So too could Gingrich’s failure to compete seriously in the state, he noted.

For now, it’s all up for grabs. But by Wednesday morning, the likely identity of the Republican Party’s presidential nominee could be a lot clearer.