It was never supposed to be this close. This is Michigan, birthplace of the automobile and of the presidential candidate who says he grew up being able to identify any model after seeing just one square foot of a car. Here, Mitt Romney says, the trees are the right height and the little inland lakes are just as he remembers.

Even if things did not go exactly according to his plan when Romney arrived in Michigan two weeks ago to begin a furious push to reverse his double-digit deficit in the polls, he edged past insurgent Rick Santorum and salvaged his front-runner status.

On Tuesday night, just after news organizations declared Romney the winner in Michigan, a palpable sense of relief emanated from his senior aides as they emerged from the private room where they had been monitoring returns. The campaign’s Michigan-based strategist, Lori Wortz, broke into tears.

Speaking to supporters Tuesday night, Romney recounted “meeting moms and dads, students and grandparents, all concerned about what was happening to this great country” as he campaigned in both Michigan and Arizona. “Tonight, their efforts have brought our cause a great victory.”

Romney roundly defeated Santorum in Arizona; the margin in Michigan was just a few percentage points.

When Romney addressed reporters in Novi on Tuesday morning, instead of looking ahead to Super Tuesday next week, he looked back for excuses — for why he had to claw his way to the top in this state, where he had been a heavy favorite, and why he still hasn’t made the sale with a restive Republican electorate.

“I’m very pleased with the campaign, the organization,” he told reporters. “The candidate sometimes makes some mistakes, and so I’m trying to do better and work harder and make sure that we get our message across.”

A reporter reminded him about his casual remark last week that his wife drove “a couple of Cadillacs,” which highlighted his personal wealth, as well as his reference during a visit to the Daytona 500 to being friends with NASCAR team owners, and asked the candidate whether he had undermined his campaign. Romney replied: “Yes. Next question.”

Romney’s strategists did not believe that Michigan would be particularly close until Santorum shook up the race with triumphs in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri on Feb. 7. Romney’s aides went into overdrive, deploying top officials to Detroit and quickly scheduling additional stops throughout the state.

In a departure for his campaign, Romney spoke at a number of events that his aides did not control, including a speech Friday to the Detroit Economic Club at Ford Field. About 1,200 guests gathered in a stadium that seats 65,000, sparking derision in the media. On Sunday, Romney’s wife, Ann, jokingly told a GOP luncheon, “I am so mad at the press [that] I could just strangle them.”

Saul Anuzis, a Romney supporter and former Michigan Republican Party chairman, said: “The dynamics changed. He had to go out and earn it.”

Even before the polls opened Tuesday, the man who made a fortune turning around ailing companies had plans to turn around his campaign, and quickly. Romney’s advisers, recognizing the huge stakes for him in the 10 states holding caucuses or primaries next Tuesday, said he will focus his attacks against Santorum on issues considered more favorable to Romney: the economy and fiscal responsibility.

Romney offered a preview Tuesday morning when he repeatedly referred to Santorum “an economic lightweight.”

One adviser called this strategy “stick to what you’re good at.”

“He needs to get back on the economy, where he doesn’t make mistakes and is comfortable and certain,” said a second Romney adviser who, like others interviewed, requested anonymity to speak freely about internal campaign strategy.

“When he strays and goes out and debates social issues and all the rest, it’s just a race that he’s not comfortable with,” the adviser added. “So you’re going to see him really try to force the agenda back into that economic universe of issues. That’s where he feels the strongest, that’s where he’s the most natural in talking about it, that’s where he’s going to go.”

Romney’s team acknowledges that it may take more than a disciplined economic message to win over some of the conservative voters who remain hostile to his candidacy. The party’s base is itching for a candidate to bloody President Obama’s nose, a Republican leader who says publicly what voters are screaming privately at their televisions.

“They’re disappointed that Romney isn’t doing that, and they’ll fall in love with anybody that is,” said one outside adviser to Romney’s campaign. “Romney could channel that better, but I don’t know that it’s in his nature to do it.”

That much Romney acknowledges.

“It’s very easy to excite the base with incendiary comments,” Romney told reporters Tuesday. “We’ve seen throughout the campaign that if you’re willing to say really outrageous things that are accusatory and attacking President Obama that you’re going to jump up in the polls. You know, I’m not willing to light my hair on fire to try and get support. I am who I am.”