After tough race, Romney beats Santorum in Michigan primary

Mitt Romney re-established himself as the Republican front-runner Tuesday night with his win in Michigan’s pivotal primary, fending off what would have been a crushing defeat by rival Rick Santorum.

The Associated Press and television news networks projected Romney as the winner shortly after 10 p.m. ET.

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With 99 percent of precincts reporting, Romney had 41 percent of the vote to Santorum’s 38 percent. Ron Paul was in third with 12, followed by Newt Gingrich with 7 percent.

Santorum won vast parts of the state, including almost all of the Upper Peninsula and Kent County, which holds Grand Rapids and a large number of social conservatives. But Santorum's strength in more rural areas couldn't overcome Romney's strength in voter-rich areas with large populations.

In the wealthy Detroit suburbs in Oakland County, where Romney was expected to do best among the area's socially moderate, fiscal conservatives, he was more than 20 points ahead of Santorum. Even in Wayne County — home to Detroit and a huge Democratic population that could have cast crossover votes for Santorum — Romney was ahead by almost 10 points.


"We didn't win by a lot but we won by enough, and that's all that counts," Romney said in his victory speech.

Romney also won the primary in Arizona, but with much less fanfare. Polls had shown him with a lead of about 15 points in the days heading into the vote in Arizona.

Santorum acknowledged his supporters for making Michigan, where Romney grew up, a close contest.

"We came into the backyard of one of my opponents, in a race that everyone said, 'just ignore, you really don’t have much chance here,' " Santorum said in his speech, during which he did not mention Romney.

Exit polling showed that voters were most concerned with choosing the candidate with the best chance at defeating President Obama, a factor that traditionally works in Romney's favor. About 20 percent of voters sought someone with the best experience for the job, and Romney cleaned up in that category as well.

Santorum did better among voters looking for a candidate who shared their religious views, a factor that likely helped Santorum perform as well as he did. About 40 percent of Michigan voters identified themselves as either evangelical or born-again Christian.

Romney heads into next week’s 10 Super Tuesday contests with momentum on his side, leaving Santorum with little time to try to regain ground.

The stakes for Romney were higher in Michigan than in any previous state in the GOP primary thus far, except for New Hampshire, where Romney overwhelmed the other candidates in January. Like New Hampshire, Romney has deep roots in Michigan, where his father served as governor. A loss there would have sounded an alarm in Republican circles about his viability.

Santorum gave Romney a run for his money in the state, and polls showed the two in a dead heat as voters headed to the polls. Santorum and his super-PAC spent well over $1 million blanketing the airwaves in Michigan, and the former Pennsylvania senator hit Romney repeatedly on his refusal to support the 2008 bailout of Detroit’s auto industry despite supporting a Wall Street bailout.

While voting was still under way, Santorum’s campaign worked to frame his Michigan efforts as a major success regardless of the outcome, because he had put Romney on the defensive in what should have been easy territory for him.

“It’s already a win for us. We should declare victory now,” Santorum spokesman Hogan Gidley said Tuesday on MSNBC. “Mitt Romney thought he was going to spend $30 in 30 minutes and go on to the next state.”

Romney’s triumph gave his campaign the jolt of energy that it needed to thrust him forward to Super Tuesday on March 6, when 10 states will hold GOP primary contests. Romney’s momentum and his aura as the race’s front-runner were badly damaged by three losses to Santorum in early February in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri, and he had been fending off concerns ever since about his potency among conservatives.

In the most closely watched of the Super Tuesday states — Ohio — Santorum has been in the lead since surging nationally in mid-February. But with the wind at his back, Romney hoped victories in Michigan and Arizona would restore his dominance over the GOP field and push his numbers upward in upcoming states.

In Arizona, 29 delegates were at stake in a winner-take-all contest — one main reason the candidates essentially skipped the contest. The candidates visited the Grand Canyon State last week for a debate in Mesa and held a few events, then left and didn’t return.

But in Michigan, the state’s 30 delegates were to be awarded on a proportional basis that afforded two delegates to each congressional district. That meant Santorum was expected to pick up some delegates even if he placed second overall.

With better hopes of scoring a partial win in Michigan, the candidates played hard and heavy there, traversing the rural portions of the state and making their case to the state’s large swaths of blue-collar and evangelical voters.

“Manufacturing is not only important for blue-collar America, it’s also important for small-town America,” Santorum said Friday in Lincoln Park, Mich.

Paul made a solid push in Michigan, where he hoped to pick up as many delegates as possible despite his struggle to perform in non-caucus states. His team said a Monday rally of about 4,000 people in East Lansing was his best-attended event of the campaign.

Gingrich essentially wrote off Michigan, opting to get a head start on the other candidates in conservative Southern states such as Tennessee and Georgia, his home state.

For Santorum, Michigan provided additional allure: a golden opportunity to hit Romney in a state that political observers deemed a must-win for him. Romney’s father served as the state’s popular governor, and Romney worked overtime to convince audiences that he was a true son of Michigan.

As the primary drew closer and polls showed an increasingly tight race, both Santorum and Romney ramped up the rhetoric. Complicating matters was Michigan’s open system, which allows residents to vote in either party’s primary.

Liberal activists had urged Democrats to pull a GOP ballot and vote for Santorum, whom they see as an easier target for Obama to defeat than Romney. But in a surprise move, Santorum’s own campaign on Monday launched robocalls asking Democrats to back him in the GOP primary.

“It’s a dirty trick. It’s outrageous to see Rick Santorum team up with the Obama people and go out after union labors in Detroit and try to get them to vote against me,” Romney said Tuesday on Fox News.

Tuesday’s primaries also marked the end of the phase of the campaign where the candidates could focus on just one or two states at a time. With Super Tuesday just a week away, the GOP hopefuls were set to spread out on Wednesday to Ohio, Tennessee and Georgia.

—This story was updated at 7:45 a.m.