The upcoming contests are expected to draw only limited engagement from the other remaining candidates, former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and Rep.Ron Paul (Tex.).
The contests offer Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, a chance to prove what he and other conservatives have long claimed: that a moderate such as Romney cannot beat one of them in a head-to-head matchup. His supporters point to Santorum’s sweep of three contests on Feb. 7, which has propelled his surge since.
“Next Tuesday’s election is pivotal for Mitt Romney,” said GOP consultant Mike Dennehy. “Michigan is really the battleground for the future of the nomination.”
Paul will also get a clean matchup with Romney on Super Tuesday in Virginia, where only those two candidates met the stringent qualifications for a place on the ballot.
The coming calendar poses the biggest problem for Gingrich, a onetime conservative alternative to Romney who has dropped in the polls and has not been able to raise enough money to run a national campaign.
Gingrich is largely looking past the contests in Arizona and Michigan, and in Washington state on March 3, and is instead focusing on Super Tuesday races in Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Georgia, his home state. He will find competition in all of them from Santorum and Romney.
GOP pollster Jon McHenry said two of those races appear to be particularly significant.
“Ohio and Georgia strike me as the most important Super Tuesday states,” McHenry said. “They’re large states; one is a Deep South, appeal-to-the-base state, and the other is the quintessential swing state. And the timing means you can’t just camp out there and win by showing up.”
Romney has been building organizations in all the Super Tuesday states, announcing slates of elected officials, key party activists and local business leaders who are backing him, and he hopes to take advantage of their political networks on the ground. He will also probably have a money advantage, as his campaign and a super PAC supporting him are vastly outspending his opponents. This could be particularly critical at a time when TV ads will take on an even greater role.
Although his opponents may point to individual states and moments in the race as evidence of Romney’s vulnerability, his campaign hopes its all-around performance will erase any doubt that he is the front-runner.