In the Michigan Republican primary Tuesday, Mitt Romney had a near-death experience, but he squeaked out a narrow victory over Rick Santorum. That, says veteran Republican strategist Ed Rogers, has calmed some of the anxiety in Republican circles about Romney's strength as a general election candidate.
"Mitt Romney did what he needed to do to give more certainty and more clarity to the race. He dodged a bullet; it was an ugly win," Rogers says. "It's not over. Santorum is still very competitive."
Romney is still a fragile front-runner, but a win is a win, says Republican consultant Whit Ayres.
"Whenever Mitt Romney's back is to the wall and he absolutely has to win, he has come through so far — first in Florida, now in Michigan. So [the primary]'s results will tamp down the call for a new candidate at least for a week," Ayres says.
Ayres points out that there hasn't been any momentum in this Republican race. Candidates win one round and then go on to lose the next. Plus, the delegate process has turned the GOP primary into a longer-than-expected campaign.
In six days, there will be another set of contests when 10 states vote on Super Tuesday. Ohio is the biggest prize and the biggest test for Romney. It's a must-win battleground for the fall, filled with the kind of white working-class voters Romney has had trouble with. To connect with those voters, Rogers says, Romney needs to solve a problem he created for himself with awkward comments about his wealth.
"Every candidate develops a negative stereotype, and almost always that negative stereotype is managed, not solved," Rogers says. "He's not going to solve his aloofness and some of the vocabulary and quips he has that suggest he is a wealthy man.
"He's just got to watch it, or he proves the stereotype that he is a wealthy, aloof, disconnected soul."
Romney has admitted he has made mistakes — such as when he said his wife has a couple of Cadillacs, or when he was asked Sunday at the Daytona speedway whether he follows NASCAR.
"Not as closely as some of the most ardent fans," he responded, "but I have some great friends that are NASCAR team owners."
The problem isn't that Romney is rich — so were Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and the Bushes — but it's not good to sound out of touch.
As for Santorum, he needed a win in Michigan as much as Romney needed to avoid a loss. According to Ayres, Santorum has also exposed his own vulnerabilities.
"Rick Santorum came close in Michigan, to his great credit, but he came out of the contest diminished as a national candidate," he says. "He started off running against sex and ended up running against college. Those are not the moves of a world-class politician. So he should be an easier contestant for Romney to beat after Michigan than before."
Santorum seems to understand this. On Tuesday night, just days after calling the president a snob for suggesting all young people go to college, he praised his 93-year-old mother for her advanced degrees and for working outside the home.
"She's someone who ... did get a college education ... in the 1930s, and was a nurse, and got a graduate degree even as a nurse, and worked full-time," Santorum said.
The Race Continues
Santorum and Romney will probably get 15 delegates each because Michigan awards its delegates proportionally instead of winner take all. There are a lot more proportional primaries coming up, says Republican demographer John B. Morgan, because the Republican National Committee created new rules. The committee thought a longer process, similar to what the Democrats had in 2008, would be a good thing.
"They are getting what they designed: They are getting a process that is going to go on through March," he says.
However, most Republicans now believe there probably won't be a contested convention — the scenario where no one gets the necessary 1,144 delegates. Morgan says the contest will continue regardless because Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul still have opportunities later in March to gain more delegates.
Meanwhile, the grinding Republican primary is delaying the day when the nominee can turn his full attention to President Obama and the fall campaign.