Michigan, Arizona Prepare For Tuesday's Primaries

The Republican presidential candidates face two important primaries Tuesday with high stakes for former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. Polls for contests in Arizona and Michigan showed the once-designated front-runner falling behind former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum until recently, when Romney has pulled even or slightly ahead.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene.

Tomorrow, the Republican presidential candidates are facing two important primaries. Polls in contests in Arizona and Michigan initially showed the once-designated front-runner, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, falling behind former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum.

INSKEEP: But the latest figures now have Romney tied or slightly ahead. Wins for Romney in those two states would still, though, not provide him with any knockout blows.

GREENE: And let's talk about this with Cokie Roberts, who's a regular contributor to MORNING EDITION. Good morning, Cokie.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Hi, David.

GREENE: Well, even as Mitt Romney has managed to erase his deficit in the polls in the states that we're talking about for tomorrow, he's still having trouble sealing the deal in Michigan, and that's notable. I mean that's his home state where his father was governor, his mother is a respected civic leader.

I mean, tell us what's going on. Is this Romney failing to do something or this a matter of what the party is looking for right now?

ROBERTS: Well, it's both. Romney keeps managing to say just the wrong thing all of the time. So he stepped on his own economic message on Friday, when he talked about the American cars his family drives and said my wife drives a couple of Cadillacs - one at one house and one at another. It's not exactly your average family situation. And when he was asked about it over the weekend, he said, well, he's not perfect; but if Americans don't want a successful person, they shouldn't vote for him. And that's going to be his mantra.

But then, last night, when he went to the not-run Daytona 500, and asked whether he follows NASCAR. He said no but I've a couple of friends who are NASCAR owners. Again, it's the kind of tin ear that makes his advisors and key supporters tear their hair out. And some...

GREENE: Not everyone can have friends who are owners of NASCAR.

ROBERTS: No. No. And some of those supporters are the governors, of both Michigan and Arizona, who've endorsed Romney and have something to lose if he loses. But their endorsements also could be a problem for him because it's a year when voters don't want to take what they see as advice or orders from anybody. And that's where the difference in the Republican Party shows up.

It is a different party than he ran in four years ago. And we're seeing it in state after state. Indiana Senator Richard Lugar is in trouble. Orrin Hatch is in trouble. In Utah, Tommy Thompson, who was governor, is a highly successful governor of Wisconsin, is in uphill fight to come into the Senate. So, a guy like Santorum who lost his Senate re-election in Pennsylvania by a huge landslide in 2006 is now popular because the party has moved so far to the right.

GREENE: Well, let's talk about Rick Santorum and his effort to connect with the party. I mean he's having some of his own problems as voters are getting to know him a bit better.

ROBERTS: And today he has an op-ed on economics in The Wall Street Journal but he spent the weekend saying things that do seem out of the mainstream. He said President Kennedy, then-candidate Kennedy's separation of church and state speech, quote, "made me want to throw up." And he said President Obama's drive for every American kid to have the opportunity to go to college was a bad idea.

RICK SANTORUM: President Obama wants to send - he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE)

SANTORUM: There are good, decent men and women who go out and work hard every day and put their skills to tests that aren't taught by some liberal college professor.

ROBERTS: Now, I don't think most Americans think their kids shouldn't go to college for ideological reasons. The effect of all of this, David, is that people in the party - the governors who were here in Washington this weekend - are beginning to say maybe we need another candidate; maybe we need a brokered convention - a wide open convention. Now, those things tend not to happen. But there's a tremendous amount of nervousness, particularly with a new poll out today showing President Obama beating any Republican handily and doing very well with independents.

GREENE: There's still a chance for a fresh face in the time that we have left, is political commentator Cokie Roberts.

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