Romney, Santorum hurtle to photo finish

Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum blanketed Michigan on Monday, hoping to seal the deal ahead of a neck-and-neck primary that could have enormous implications for the GOP presidential race.

But Tuesday’s contests in Michigan and Arizona couldn’t come soon enough for the Republican candidates, all four of whom emerged bruised and visibly depleted by the most recent stretch of the campaign.

Three polls showed Romney and Santorum in a dead heat in Michigan, with the former Massachusetts governor significantly ahead in the less-closely watched race in Arizona. 

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A win by Romney in Michigan, where he spent his childhood and where his father served as governor, would likely quell concerns within the party that the legs of his carefully crafted campaign are falling off. 

A loss to Santorum, on the other hand, is expected to throw the race — and the GOP — into chaos, with no clear path for a candidate to emerge with the electoral might to beat President Obama in the fall.

“I’m planning on winning here in Michigan and also in Arizona,” Romney said Monday on Fox News — one of a half-dozen media appearances he scheduled in addition to three campaign stops. “Obviously, that will be huge for us if we’re able to do, particularly having come from so far behind here in Michigan.”

Complicating matters is Michigan’s primary process, which doesn’t require party registration: voters can request whichever ballot they want, meaning Democrats could vote in the GOP primary.


And there are reports Democrats intend to do just that, voting for Santorum in order to damage Romney, who is seen as the greater threat to Obama.

The candidates have been creating their own problems, however, spending much of the past three weeks crouched in a defensive position, walking back gaffes and veering into politically dangerous territory with off-the-cuff remarks.

“Few people at 24-hour exposure can avoid a mistake,” said GOP consultant Dan Hazelwood. “We’re in a storyline now where the press has nothing to do but stare at them and watch for mistakes.”

Unlike the first months of the primary, in which frequent debates (and later, frequent primary contests) punctuated the calendar and offered opportunities to reset the agenda, three weeks separated Michigan and Arizona from contests in Minnesota, Colorado and Missouri — all of which Santorum won.

For Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul, who both realized early on that Michigan and Arizona were difficult political terrain and that their campaign resources would be better spent in future races, those three weeks complicated their efforts to stay relevant and convince Republicans they were capable of running a national campaign.

“When you’re in this kind of vacuum of natural events, at this stage of the campaign, they’re being filled with information that’s not helpful in the broader effort,” said an aide to one of the campaigns.

The one debate between Santorum’s sweep in early February and Tuesday’s contests proved to be a boon to no one.

But it paled in comparison to what the candidates said on the stump and in interviews while making their case to voters.

For the calculated and collected Romney, no amount of discipline seemed capable of preventing turns of phrases that have underscored a perception of the former governor as an out-of-touch millionaire — one that Democrats have been eager to highlight. Seeking to quell unease in Michigan over his opposition to the 2008 bailout of the auto industry, Romney told voters that his wife owned “a couple of Cadillacs.”

 Also damaging to Romney was a heavily promoted policy speech he delivered at Ford Field in Detroit on Friday to an almost-empty stadium. No primary candidate would be expected to fill a 65,000-seat arena, but because Romney’s campaign had preempted the speech by releasing details of his economic plan beforehand, there was little else for the media to cover other than the damaging optics.

Then there was the offhand comment he made to a reporter as he tried to shore up his blue-collar credentials by appealing to NASCAR fans.

When asked during a visit to Daytona Beach, Fla., on Sunday if he followed the sport, Romney replied, “not as closely as some of the most ardent fans, but I have some great friends that are NASCAR team owners.”

Santorum headed into Tuesday’s primaries with the same vigor as Romney, holding three events and giving at least eight media interviews on Monday. But for the former Pennsylvania senator, his appeal to blue-collar voters was overshadowed by his remarks on contentious social issues that are raising fresh questions about his appeal to a mainstream electorate. 

Santorum’s advisers say his power comes from the strength of his convictions and the feeling he inspires among voters that his beliefs stem from consistent and well-established principles, many of them religious. 

But his long-winded answers to issues that don’t appeal to a wide swath of independents and centrist Republicans raised eyebrows.

“I’m starting to wonder if he was better as an underdog than as a front-runner, because he’s still acting like an underdog,” said Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak, who is unaffiliated in the race after Texas Gov. Rick Perry, to whom he had thrown his support, dropped out in January. “He has these rhetorical flourishes that go a little far, and give some voters pause.

“So far, he’s hanging on for dear life,” Mackowiak said.

Santorum has called Obama a “snob” for urging every American to go to college, questioned the science of global warming as he scorned “radical environmentalists” and claimed prenatal tests are primarily intended to identify fetuses with genetic risks so they can be aborted. He also said that former President Kennedy’s 1960 speech lauding the separation of church and state made him want to “throw up.”

“I don’t believe in an America where the separation of church and state are absolute,” he said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday. “The idea that the church can have no influence or no involvement in the operation of the state is absolutely antithetical to the objectives and vision of our country.”

And Romney has steered clear of hitting him on those issues, presumably because the former governor can’t afford to hit Santorum from the left and reinforce doubts about his conservative credentials.

But if Romney can’t pull off a wide-margin win in Arizona and at least eke out a victory in Michigan, even that aspect of his strategy could be called into question.

“It’s going to come down to who seizes the moment post-Arizona and Michigan,” Mackowiak said. “What does Romney do if he loses Michigan going into Super Tuesday? It will be a disaster.”

- This story was updated at 11:02 a.m. on March 2 to correct the description of a source.