Momentum favors Romney in up-for-grabs Michigan

at 03:28 PM ET, 02/24/2012

There has been a lot of drama in the Republican presidential contest — especially for a campaign with no competitive primaries.

Iowa’s caucuses kept us all up into the wee hours of the morning, only to find out two weeks later that Mitt Romney’s supposed eight-vote win was actually a loss.
Days before a pivotal primary, Mitt Romney highlighted his economic plan in what was billed as a major campaign speech delivered at a cavernous and largely empty football stadium in Detroit. (AP)

But since then, every primary has been decided by double digits, while the only close races were less-important caucuses in Colorado and Maine.

Enter: Michigan

Polling in the Great Lakes State has been as close as anywhere we have seen, with Romney showing a small lead in some polling and Rick Santorum showing a small lead in other polling.

But all the recent polls have one thing in common: They have been within the margin of error.

So when The Fix set out to rank the candidates according to their likely order of finish in Michigan for our Friday Line, we ran into the kind of tough decision we haven’t experienced since we set the Line for Iowa’s caucuses. Specifically, who is No. 1 heading into the final weekend before the primary?

That said, we’re giving the edge to Romney for now, for a few reasons:

First, Wednesday’s debate. Santorum had a bad one. Everyone knows it. Even he, after the debate, was trying to claim that the audience was very much pro-Romney.

That might have been the case, but he didn’t handle himself well either, and his opponents — led by a surprisingly feisty Ron Paul — were able to successfully call into question his conservatism on issues from earmarks to Arlen Specter .

Second, the polls. It’s a little early yet for the debate fallout to have registered fully in the polls, but the piecemeal evidence we have seen suggests Romney got a debate bump.

Polling from Mitchell Research and Rosetta Stone showed little movement overall between a poll conducted couple days before the debate and one conducted the day after (Thursday). But the trend lines showed Romney erasing his deficit among tea party supporters and closing the gap among the most conservative voters. Without those demographics, it will be hard for Santorum to win.

What’s more, that same poll had Santorum up by 10 points two weeks ago, so the momentum was on Romney’s side even before the debate.

And lastly, necessity. As Fix friend Dan Balz pointed out this week, Romney has a knack for winning when he needs to.

Balz made the case that Iowa and South Carolina were never supposed to be strong states for Romney and that his campaign came back from those losses with a vengeance.

“Throughout the campaign, Rom­ney has often performed well when he needed to most,” Balz wrote.

Given the stakes in Michigan, the Romney campaign has more motivation than ever, because a loss would be crippling. We’ll see if his team can get it done.

To the line!

4. Newt Gingrich: The former House speaker’s campaign has put forward absolutely no effort in Michigan, aborting a plan to at least spend a little bit of time there in advance of Tuesday’s primary. The result: He could very well finish in fourth place for the fifth time in 10 contests so far this year.

3. Ron Paul: Paul hasn’t done anything in Michigan either, instead focusing on the caucuses in Washington state on March 3 and on Super Tuesday. But given his more devoted base of support and his strong debate performance on Wednesday, we give him the edge on Gingrich for now. Most polling has showing Paul a few points ahead of Gingrich, in the low double-digits.

2. Rick Santorum: Despite his being No. 2 on this list, anything can happen in a few days time. Democrats could turn out in huge numbers to vote against Romney; Romney’s comments about his many cars could come back to bite him in a heavily blue collar state; or some other shoe could drop in the next few days. Momentum appears to be on Romney’s side, but momentum has been a fickle thing so far in the 2012 presidential race.

1. Mitt Romney: The former Massachusetts governor needs a win badly. It would likely give him a sweep on Tuesday (he’s a heavy favorite in Arizona) and would further the idea that Santorum can’t win outside of low-turnout caucuses. Santorum also has a chance to win next Saturday in Washington state, but that likely won’t be good for too much of a pre-super Tuesday bump. If Romney wins, he’s on a strong path for the nomination again and will look to Super Tuesday to put his opponents on ice.

 
Read what others are saying