Romney vs. Santorum: Down to the wire in Michigan and Arizona

Though the momentum seems to be with Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum does well in some polls. But beyond next week's primaries, then “Super Tuesday” a week later, establishment Republicans worry about the outlook for taking on Barack Obama in November.

By , Staff writer

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    Republican presidential candidates, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, left, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney at a Republican presidential debate in Mesa, Ariz. on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2012.
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As Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney bludgeon their way toward this coming week’s critical primary elections in Arizona and Michigan, each can look back at this past week and wish they had done some things differently.

Santorum got knotted up in Congress-speak in Tuesday night’s debate, battered on earmarks and having to explain why he voted for things he opposed on principle. Romney probably would have picked a better venue for his economy speech Friday, one that didn’t look like a handful of people in a vast stadium. And he likely regrets adding to his rich-guy image by remarking on his family’s stable of automobiles – including his wife’s “couple of Cadillacs.”

At week’s end, Santorum might wish that the cumulative missteps had balanced each other out. Still, the momentum with just three more days to campaign seems to be on Romney’s side.

Recommended: Rick Santorum: Top 7 culture war moments

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Nationally, Real Clear Politics polling data show Santorum ahead of Romney among Republican voters by as much as 12 points with a polling average of 5 points. But there’s no such thing as a national party primary election, and Romney beats Santorum by a polling average of 9 points in Arizona and just under 2 points in Michigan. And in the most recent polls – taken after what most pundits saw as Santorum’s shellacking in the Tuesday night debate – Romney leads in Michigan (where a home state loss would be devastating) by as much as 6 points.

Nate Silver, who writes the FiveThirtyEight political blog at the New York Times, gives Romney a 2-to-1 chance of taking Michigan, and the InTrade prediction market makes it 5-to-1 in Michigan and nearly a total blowout in Arizona.

Romney also comes closer to beating Barack Obama in theoretical match-ups than does Santorum – which is why in some quarters he’s considered the more “electable.”

But in a race with no clear front-runner, a large portion of the GOP voting field still unexcited about their potential candidates, and an incumbent experiencing a bit of a comeback in the polls, Romney’s electability may be a bit wobbly.

“Conventional wisdom says that Mitt Romney is a more viable candidate than Rick Santorum in a head-to-head fight with President Obama,” writes David Bass in the conservative American Spectator. “But my sense is that the so-called Romney-Santorum electability divide underestimates one of Romney's biggest liabilities in the general election: His aura of being the guy who just fired you.”

Santorum, in fact, can take comfort from other bits of polling news.

In 12 swing states, Santorum is more likely than Romney to beat Obama, according to a new survey by Purple Strategies, a bipartisan political consulting firm. Obama leads Romney by 4 points and Santorum by 2 points.

“These results may bring into question Mitt Romney's continued claim of electability,” writes Doug Usher, Purple Strategies managing partner, on Huffington Post. “Since September, we have tested President Obama against Rick Perry, Jeb Bush, Newt Gingrich, and now Rick Santorum. Of all of these candidates, Rick Santorum is the only one to outperform Romney (albeit by a small margin) against President Obama in Purple America. Additionally, among independents, Romney trails by 3 points, while Santorum leads President Obama by 2 points (44-42 percent).”

In Gallup’s national tracking poll, Santorum leads Romney 33-27 percent (with 16 percent for Newt Gingrich and 11 percent for Ron Paul).

But looking beyond Michigan and Arizona next week, then the ten elections on “Super Tuesday” a week later, establishment Republicans increasingly worry about the outlook for taking on Barack Obama in November’s general election.

In a long New York magazine piece published Saturday, John Heilemann details “a GOP that’s tearing itself apart” over ideology and direction.

Recalling the fight between Nelson Rockefeller and Barry Goldwater in 1964 and then Ronald Reagan vs. Gerald Ford in 1976 – both of which led to Democratic wins in the presidential election – Heilemann writes that “many Republicans are already looking past 2012.”

He writes:

If either Romney or Santorum gains the nomination and then falls before Obama, flubbing an election that just months ago seemed eminently winnable, it will unleash a GOP apocalypse on November 7 – followed by an epic struggle between the regulars and red-hots to refashion the party. And make no mistake: A loss is what the GOP’s political class now expects.

“Six months before this thing got going, every Republican I know was saying, ‘We’re gonna win, we’re gonna beat Obama,’ ” says former Reagan strategist Ed Rollins. “Now even those who’ve endorsed Romney say, ‘My God, what a … mess.’ ”

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