Mitt Romney’s weaknesses have been front and center in the Republican presidential campaign. Less discussed but no less important are his opponents’ weaknesses. None of Romney’s rivals has shown the breadth of appeal to be a true threat to win the party’s nomination.
Romney’s victory in the Michigan primary has been widely described as winning ugly. That may be the case, given that Michigan is where he grew up, and he won by three percentage points. What, then, should Rick Santorum’s loss be called? It’s not what Santorum would like the world to believe it is.
View the full county-by-county results of the Michigan Republican primary.
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The former senator from Pennsylvania hailed his defeat — and what could be an even split in delegates — as something of a victory. Certainly he can take solace in the fact that two months ago he was not even considered a serious candidate and he ended up giving Romney a major scare. But given that he was clearly ahead in the polls two weeks out, the fact that he could not hold that lead says as much about his limitations as it does about his appeal.
That has been the story time and again in the Republican race. This week, it’s Santorum. Earlier, it was Newt Gingrich. He won South Carolina but soon after lost Florida and has been out of the picture since. Ron Paul, for all the talk about his passionate supporters and his organizers’ attention to detail, has yet to win a single primary contest.
The results and the exit polls from many of those states illustrate the problem that Romney’s competitors face as the contest turns to Super Tuesday. The others can win parts of the Republican electorate, or score victories in regional hot spots, but they haven’t demonstrated the kind of broad geographic or demographic support that is required to become a party’s nominee.
Romney has won six of the 11 contests to date. He finished second in four others. His worst finish was third, in Minnesota’s caucuses, behind Santorum and Paul. Santorum has won four contests and finished second in two others. But he has run third four times and fourth once. Gingrich ran second in the two contests that followed his South Carolina victory but faded to third or fourth in all the contests since. Paul has a pair of seconds in two contests in the Northeast, but the rest of his finishes are thirds or fourths.
Romney’s biggest primary defeat came in South Carolina, where he was overrun by Gingrich. Most of his other losses were in states that were not directly awarding delegates. Missouri, for example, was purely a beauty contest. Caucus results in Minnesota and Colorado may or may not affect how the delegates ultimately are apportioned. That doesn’t excuse Romney and his team. Letting Colorado, a state he won in his 2008 presidential bid, get away was one of the campaign’s major miscalculations.
So Gingrich’s lone victory was significant, but he has not translated it into anything since. Santorum couldn’t leverage what first looked like a close second in Iowa — and later became a victory — into any immediate momentum in New Hampshire or South Carolina. His capture of Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri on the same day provided a huge psychological boost but no delegates. Nor, ultimately, did those wins propel him to victory in Arizona or Michigan.