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The high stakes primary: why Michigan matters

Given that Michigan awards delegates proportionately, the winner of the primary could earn fewer delegates than the loser. Even so, the contest is a must-win for Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum.

By Staff writer / February 28, 2012

Republican presidential candidates, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, left, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney talk following a Republican presidential debate last week in Mesa, Ariz.

Nick Oza/AP Photo/The Arizona Republic


If the polls are any indication, tonight's Michigan primary could be very close. While Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum have been duking it out there for weeks, neither one is likely to win by a wide margin.

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And given how Michigan apportions delegates, they may both emerge with about the same numbers (the winner could even receive fewer delegates than the loser).

So why does the Michigan primary matter?

The reality is that both Mr. Romney and Mr. Santorum have a lot at stake – and a lot to lose – with Tuesday's contest.

Fair or not, the media is likely to place disproportionate weight on the outcome – especially since Arizona and Michigan are the first contests held since Santorum won Minnesota, Colorado, and Missouri three weeks ago – and the loser in Michigan is likely to face increased scrutiny on a host of issues.

If Romney wins both states (Arizona will almost certainly vote for him), then it's going to be tougher for Santorum to claim he's the serious contender for the nomination that he claims to be.

Santorum has been struggling in recent weeks, and delivered a lackluster debate performance in Arizona last week. His decision to stake all his bets on social issues seems to be backfiring among some voters, and raising questions about whether he can appeal to women, and to more moderate Republicans and independents.

Also, all the contests he has won so far (except Missouri, whose primary didn't count and where no other candidates campaigned) have been caucuses. Caucuses, where far fewer voters turn out and those who do tend to be the most enthusiastic and represent the most extreme parts of the party, play to Santorum's strengths. But he badly needs to demonstrate that he can win in a straight primary, as well.

Santorum has had trouble appealing to party leaders, whose support he needs to secure in a race this close, and especially given his deficiencies in money, staffing, and organization compared with Romney. And a Michigan win could be pivotal to helping him make his case.


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