Mitt Romney at Daytona 500. Shouldn't he be in Michigan?

Mitt Romney was in Florida to attend the Daytona 500 on Sunday, when there was a make-or-break primary in two days in Michigan. The appearance could be indicative of Romney camp confidence.

Terry Renna/AP
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, center, walks past the main grandstand with driver Brian Vickers, right, before the NASCAR Daytona 500 Sprint Cup series auto race at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla., Sunday, Feb. 26.

Mitt Romney was at Daytona International Speedway on Sunday to attend the Daytona 500. Rain postponed the race, so he didn’t get to see NASCAR racers charging around the famous Daytona oval, turning only to the left. (No Massachusetts Moderate jokes, please.)

But here’s our question: What was he doing in Florida, when there’s a make-or-break primary in two days at the other end of I-75, in Michigan? Shouldn’t he have been campaigning in, say, Marquette?

Not necessarily. We think the Florida appearance is indicative of Romney camp confidence and could help him in both the Great Lakes State and the general election, if he makes it that far.

OK, his Daytona walk-around itself was yet another example of Mr. Romney’s inimitable stiff bonhomie. When he mixes with regular voters, he reminds us of nothing so much as Prince Charles holding a hot dog: He knows he’s supposed to enjoy it, but he doesn’t really know where to start.

For instance, at one point Romney noted that he does not “closely” follow, as an ardent fan, events of the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing. But he added, “I have some great friends who are NASCAR team owners.”

Is that the best choice of words for a guy who’s been taking criticism for noting that his wife drives “several Cadillacs”? Maybe not. (Though as an aside, we’ll note that Michiganders are eager to have as many people drive as many Cadillacs as possible.)

However, the Romney campaign got what it generally wanted: photos and coverage of him walking around a racetrack in a windbreaker, mixing and mingling with regular folks. We think the appearance means they’re increasingly confident about Romney’s prospects in Tuesday’s Michigan primary. Polls show he’s closed the gap on Rick Santorum in the Mitten State, and momentum may be on his side. A new Public Policy Polling survey puts him ahead of Mr. Santorum 39 to 37 percent, for example.

“Compared to a week ago Romney’s gained 6 points, while Santorum’s just stayed in place,” concludes PPP.

It’s a truism of politics that you need to watch what candidates do as opposed to what they say to see how they feel about their prospects. To risk a flight to Florida for a photo op right now probably means Romney Inc. is feeling good. Santorum did not go, despite the fact that he’s sponsoring a car in the race.

Stock-car racing is popular in Michigan, of course, as is anything to do with Detroit iron. But here’s the kicker: Overall, NASCAR fans are not as GOP-oriented as you think. So Romney’s appearance could help him with voters overall.

As conservative commentator S.E. Cupp noted in an article on NASCAR’s own website prior to the 2008 election, NASCAR’s audience is massive – some 70 million fans – and politically diverse.

“Its fans vote 35 percent Republican and 28 percent Democratic – a separation of only 7 percentage points, hardly a convincing argument for NASCAR’s political leanings,” Ms. Cupp wrote.

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