The sound you hear is the loud sigh of relief from the Romney campaign. A great deal was on the line for Mitt Romney in the oddest of places — the state of his birth, the state where his dad served as governor, the state he won against John McCain four years ago. A few months ago, no one could have imagined Mitt Romney being hard-pressed in Michigan, and yet it happened.
Rick Santorum may have lost by a few points, but he scored a moral victory by making Romney work for the Wolverine State. This was a real contest that Santorum might have won had Romney not put the pedal to the metal. After all, based on pre-primary surveys and exit polling, Santorum won the actual Election Day vote, suggesting both that Romney’s superior organization delivered for him again in absentee balloting but also that among the party faithful who simply showed up on Election Day, Romney continues to have considerable problems.
By most estimates, Romney outspent Santorum by about three to two, counting the SuperPAC expenditures, and he called upon all of the establishment resources available to him in and around Michigan, from Gov. Rick Snyder on down. Had he lost the state, the floodgates would have opened for the concerns being expressed publicly and privately in every state about Romney’s inability to close the deal with Republicans and his deep general election weakness with independents. Along with the strong victory in Arizona, which saw Romney getting about half the vote, Romney has yet another reprieve, similar to the ones he secured after winning New Hampshire, then later Florida and Nevada.
Now the question becomes whether Romney can sustain a winning trajectory. He has failed to do so up to this point. Odds are he will lose quite a few states on Super Tuesday, March 6. But he is guaranteed Virginia, Massachusetts and Vermont, and he must take the battle to Santorum in the most important Super Tuesday state, Ohio. Indeed, of the 10 states voting on Super Tuesday, Ohio is the only primary where the statewide winner is seriously in doubt (along with some of the hard-to-predict caucus states). It won’t be easy for Romney, and an often accurate survey from the University of Cincinnati put Santorum up 11 points over Romney in the Buckeye State.
In Ohio, Romney will do what he always does — outspend Santorum, go hard negative on TV and ask the GOP leadership to come to his rescue. The state may be flooded with Romney surrogates such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and as usual, Romney will need all the help he can get. Ohio may be trickier territory for Romney than Michigan. Obviously, he has no homefield advantage — for what that was worth — and Ohio has a larger percentage of evangelical voters in its GOP electorate (44% in 2008, according to exit polls) than Michigan does (39% in both 2012 and 2008).
Perhaps Romney is gradually resolving the problems that have dogged him (and we’re not talking about Seamus). He has had difficulty connecting with average voters. In Massachusetts, perhaps because the two senators at the time were ultra-rich John Kerry and Ted Kennedy, Mitt Romney’s wealth never became a dominant issue in his 2002 run for governor. But the times and circumstances are very different in his race for president in 2012. The great recession, unhappiness with Wall Street, and a series of self-inflicted wounds and gaffes (“I like being able to fire people;” “’Ann drives a couple of Cadillacs;” “I have some great friends who are NASCAR team owners”) have made Romney seem less like a personable politician and more like Thurston Howell III.
One of the keys for Romney is to become comfortable with himself again, because he can only run as the person he is. Almost everyone agrees that Romney has been trying to be all things to all people or, in some cases, a candidate that he is not. Truth be told, Romney is a moderate conservative and a person of enormous wealth. Americans will not necessarily reject either, but they will be inclined to say no to someone who does not seem comfortable with his own core.