In Michigan, he defeated former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, but by a relatively narrow margin in a state where he grew up, where his father served as governor and where he won by an even bigger margin in the 2008 primary on his way to losing the nomination.
Tuesday’s results prevented what could have been a calamitous day for Romney. Instead the two primaries provided a tonic for a campaign and a candidate that have been the target of criticism for weeks. Together, Michigan and Arizona helped Romney bounce back after a trio of victories by Santorum on Feb. 7 knocked him off stride.
His Michigan comeback — he fell behind Santorum earlier in the month — showed his resilience as a candidate and underscored the advantages he holds in the nomination battle — more money, a superior organization and the ruthlessness to attack anyone in his path. Still, his advisers fretted that he would not get enough credit for turning around a campaign that only a week ago had party strategists speculating about the possibility of another candidate getting into the race.
Yet even in victory, the campaign in Michigan highlighted Romney’s flaws as a candidate. That he had to fight as hard as he did in a state he won four years ago was a reminder that he is still struggling to connect with a portion of his party’s base, even against what party strategists regard as relatively weak opposition.
While Tuesday reinforced again that he has the clearest path to the nomination, the way he won suggested that he still might have to scratch his way there, which is not how a front-runner is supposed to win.
Romney struggled in the final days of the campaign with gaffes that drew unwanted attention to his wealth and that reinforced concerns among party leaders that he may be turning a perceived strength — his background in business — into a liability among economically stressed voters.
His challenge will be to show that the struggles of February have made him a stronger and more appealing candidate, both to his party’s base and as a potential nominee. His message and demeanor the past two days indicated that he recognizes that he went off track and that, at times, he has compounded his problems with unforced errors.
When he said Tuesday that he had made mistakes and when he admitted that he was not willing to “light my hair on fire” to appeal to the most conservative of Republicans, he seemed to be planting his feet more firmly than he has in the past. But can he stick to that in the weeks ahead?