But the contest in Michigan appears fluid. Santorum held a healthy lead shortly after winning Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri. A new round of polls in the past few days showed his margin narrowing from a week earlier, the result perhaps of the negative ads Romney and the super PAC supporting him have been running.
Romney’s aggressive attack on Santorum’s record during Wednesday’s debate — on his support for earmarks, his votes to raise the nation’s debt limit, his support for the federal No Child Left Behind bill and other issues — could further erode the former senator’s standing between now and Tuesday. That would give Romney the opportunity to pull out a victory in Michigan. He is in a stronger position now to win Tuesday’s other prize, Arizona. Santorum has picked up support in the past two weeks, but up to half the voters have already cast ballots, and Romney appears to be in the lead among them.
How much would a pair of victories be worth? Republican strategists say that although they would restore Romney to front-runner status in the race, they could still leave the party looking at a long nomination battle. They also say that winning both states Tuesday wouldn’t be enough to resolve many of the doubts that still surround Romney.
Although he has long been seen as the candidate to beat for the nomination, Romney has fought to meet the expectations that go along with that status. He has been losing that battle of late. Against a relatively weak field of opponents, he has not been able to demonstrate consistent superiority. He has struggled to excite the Republican Party’s conservative grass-roots base. Conservative elites have been critical of his message and his candidacy. His shortcomings have engendered considerable talk about the still-remote possibility of another candidate entering the race.
“I think he would remain in the driver’s seat if he wins, but this campaign season has seemed to be momentum-proof, so [victories next week] will only last until Super Tuesday, when he will need another strong showing,” said Mike DuHaime, a Republican strategist and adviser to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. “Given his background in Michigan and his family roots, he is expected to do well, which sometimes limits the momentum, as we saw after a convincing win in New Hampshire.”
Even if Romney were to win Michigan and Arizona, he will face a difficult landscape on Super Tuesday, March 6. A victory in Michigan would boost his prospects in Ohio, but Santorum, who is from neighboring Pennsylvania, is a serious threat there. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich is focused on Georgia, the state he represented in Congress. Tennessee and Oklahoma will be more than problematic for Romney, given their conservative electorates.