Arizona, Michigan primary results restore Mitt Romney as GOP front-runner

With a blowout win in Arizona and a squeaker in the Michigan primary results, Mitt Romney can square his shoulders and advance to Super Tuesday as the solid favorite for the GOP nomination. 

Gerald Herbert/AP
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, greets supporters at his election watch party after winning the Michigan primary in Novi, Mich., Tuesday, Feb. 28.

In politics, as in sports, a win is a win, no matter the margin of victory. For that, Mitt Romney is surely grateful. His nail-biter victory by 3 percentage points in his native Michigan, combined with a blowout 20-point win in the Arizona primary, puts Mr. Romney back on terra firma as the solid favorite for the Republican presidential nomination.  

But victory came at a cost. The spirited challenge by Rick Santorum, who burst into contention three weeks ago by sweeping the contests in Minnesota, Colorado, and Missouri, dragged the Republican Party into its own version of class warfare and emphasized Romney’s weaknesses as a candidate. A series of gaffes fed Romney’s image as an out-of-touch plutocrat. Mr. Santorum’s pungent culture-war rhetoric, aimed at attracting blue-collar and social-conservative voters, highlighted a strain of Republicanism that alienates women and independent voters.

With 99 percent of Michigan counties reporting, Romney won 41.1 percent, Santorum won 37.9 percent, Ron Paul won 11.6 percent, and Newt Gingrich won 6.5 percent. In Arizona, with 100 percent reporting, Romney won 47.3 percent, Santorum won 26.6, Gingrich won 16.2, and Paul won 8.4 percent.

In a primary season impervious to momentum, the 10 Super Tuesday contests on March 6 are wide open, with the potential for victories by at least three of the four GOP candidates still in contention.  

Still, Romney won the lion’s share of delegates awarded Tuesday night – all 29 awarded by Arizona and at least 11 from Michigan. Santorum also won at least 11. Overall, Romney now has 163 delegates, Santorum has 83, Newt Gingrich has 32, and Ron Paul has 19, according to the Associated Press. All told, 1,144 delegates are needed to capture the GOP nomination.

The Super Tuesday states will award 437 delegates, most of them proportional according to the results. That points to a nomination slog likely to last well into the spring.

But for now, Romney can savor the Feb. 28 outcome and heave a sigh of relief over what might have been. Just two weeks ago, polls showed Romney trailing Santorum in Michigan by 10 points. A loss would have been humiliating and thrown his campaign into crisis. He was born and raised in Michigan, and his father ran an auto company and served as governor. In his victory speech, he didn’t call himself the “comeback kid,” but he made clear he was back on track.

“A week ago the pundits and the pollsters were ready to count us out,” Romney said at his primary night rally in Novi, Mich. “But across Michigan and Arizona I kept meeting moms and dads, students and grandparents, all concerned about what was happening to this great country. I was confident that we would come together today and take a giant step toward a brighter future. Tonight, their efforts have brought our cause a great victory.”

Romney then spent the bulk of his speech focused on President Obama, not his GOP challengers – a return to his strategy of pitching himself as the inevitable nominee.

Santorum began his primary night speech with an exclamation of how far he’s come as a candidate – toiling in relative anonymity, as other contenders surged and crashed around him.

“Wow,” Santorum said Tuesday night at the Amway Grand Hotel in Grand Rapids, Mich. “A month ago, they didn’t know who we are, but they do now.”

Santorum devoted a portion of his speech to praising his wife and mother for their professional and educational accomplishments, a seeming effort to repair his image among women and also among voters with higher education.  

Indeed, the Michigan exit poll showed Romney beating Santorum among women 43 percent to 38 percent. When voters were categorized by education level, the only category Santorum won was those who had never attended college. Santorum raised eyebrows during the primary when he called Mr. Obama a “snob” for promoting college attendance.

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