published Wednesday, February 29th, 2012

Romney regains stride with victories in Michigan and Arizona

Supporters of Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, cheer as election results trickle in at his election watch party in Novi, Mich., Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2012.
Supporters of Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, cheer as election results trickle in at his election watch party in Novi, Mich., Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2012.
Photo by Associated Press.

By JEFF ZELENY

c.2012 New York Times News Service

SOUTHFIELD, Mich. — Mitt Romney fended off a vigorous challenge from Rick Santorum in Michigan on Tuesday, narrowly carrying his native state, and won the Arizona primary on a day that revived his candidacy but did not erase the qualms conservatives have raised about his Republican presidential bid.

The victory by Romney in Arizona, which awarded him the state’s entire allotment of 29 delegates, was overshadowed by the battle in Michigan, a state steeped in his family’s history. The tussle with Santorum highlighted larger concerns surrounding his candidacy, but the win spared his campaign from far greater turmoil.

Before Romney could declare his victory, Santorum appeared before his cheering supporters in Grand Rapids to remind them of how far he had come. He pledged to carry the conservative fight against Romney to Ohio and other Super Tuesday states that weigh in on the race next week.

“A month ago they didn’t know who we are,” Santorum said, moments after calling Romney to concede. “They do now.”

Rep. Ron Paul of Texas delivered a speech Tuesday evening from Virginia, a Super Tuesday state where only he and Romney qualified for the ballot. He pledged to stay in the race, declaring that his campaign is “still winning a lot of delegates and that’s what counts.”

Newt Gingrich, who did not campaign in Michigan or Arizona, is hoping to revive his candidacy next week in Georgia and Tennessee. His allies are airing a new television advertisement on his behalf starting Wednesday, aggressively taking on Romney in several Super Tuesday states.

It was not an overstatement — at least in the opinion of many Republicans — to say that Romney’s candidacy was on the line in Michigan, far more than in the previous eight contests this year. He was born here, and his father, George, is fondly remembered for his service as governor nearly a half-century ago. Four years ago, Romney won the state by 9 percentage points.

But after losing a string of contests to Santorum, Romney was hardly greeted with warmth and affection. A place that his advisers hoped would offer an easy victory turned into a fierce battleground, with Santorum’s popularity among social conservatives, as well as his working-class appeal, threatening to complicate Romney’s path to the nomination.

Romney accepted a share of blame for his struggle to make the case that he is the party’s strongest prospective nominee, but he declared, “I am who I am.” He said he would not “light my hair on fire” to win over skeptical conservatives in the Republican Party.

“It’s very easy to excite the base with incendiary comments,” Romney told reporters Tuesday before the polls closed. “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.”

Against the backdrop of a slowly rebounding economy, the Michigan primary offered an early test of the challenges Republicans will face when they confront Barack Obama in the fall. The revival of the automobile industry played a central role in the campaign, particularly the 2008 government rescue, which Romney and Santorum opposed.

The economy overwhelmed all other issues, according to surveys of voters in Michigan, with more than half of voters saying it was the most important factor in their decision. About one quarter of voters said the federal budget deficit mattered most.

Michigan’s economic woes preceded the rest of the country’s downturn. When voters cast ballots in November 2008, the state had the highest unemployment in the nation at 9.9 percent, compared with the national rate of 6.5 percent. Unemployment peaked at 14.1 percent in 2009, but has steadily improved since then to 9.3 percent, which is still higher than the national unemployment rate of 8.3 percent.

About 3 in 10 Michigan voters on Tuesday said someone in their household had lost a job in the last three years, according to surveys of voters conducted by Edison Research for the National Election Pool of television networks and The Associated Press.

Those results suggested that voters in Michigan were narrowly divided.

Romney did best with the more affluent voters, city residents and those who consider themselves somewhat conservative. Santorum was supported by union members, evangelical Christians and those who think of themselves as very conservative.

Voters who feel strongly about the Tea Party were more likely to back Santorum, according to the voter surveys, which showed he had received about 45 percent of their votes. Those who described themselves as dispassionate about the Tea Party chose Romney.

In Michigan, nearly 4 in 10 primary voters were white Christian evangelicals, according to the voter surveys, and about 3 in 10 were Catholic. Santorum made aggressive appeals to both groups.

Santorum was in a stronger position in Michigan than in Arizona, the surveys showed.

The primary voters had differences on the issue of abortion. Although opposition to abortion was similar in both states (3 in 5 voters), voters in Michigan mentioned abortion as an important issue at least twice as often as voters in Arizona. And in both states, supporters for Santorum were more likely to pick this issue as important to their vote than were supporters of any of the other candidate.

The voter surveys found that Michigan’s electorate on Tuesday was slightly more moderate than those in some previous Republican caucus and primary contests this year.

Michigan does not identify voters by political party, so people who consider themselves independents and Democrats were free to participate in the primary. The rules created a stir, with Romney accusing Santorum of trying to “kidnap our primary process” by urging union members and Democrats to support the former senator from Pennsylvania.

The voter surveys did not suggest that more Democrats voted in the Michigan primary this year. Interviews with voters, along with a telephone survey of those who cast absentee ballots, found that 1 in 10 said they usually identified as a Democrat. In 2008, 7 percent of voters in the Republican primary thought of themselves as Democrats, and in 2000, 17 percent did.

But Romney poured the full weight of his campaign into Michigan, hoping a victory would ease the qualms conservatives are openly expressing about his candidacy. The strategy was risky, particularly with the surging popularity of Santorum, but he and his advisers concluded that it was his only option.

The challenge for the Romney campaign was complicated by the fact that delegates are awarded proportionally by congressional district, leaving the possibility that the winner of the statewide vote could receive fewer delegates. The symbolism of the outcome, along with the actual delegates, was important as Republican race moves further into a state-by-state fight.

The nation’s most populous states, which offer the biggest cache of delegates, hold their primaries near the end of the party’s nominating calendar this year, which will delay the time it takes to win the 1,144 delegates needed to secure the nomination.

“We’ve got four candidates all battling it out,” said Romney, who is campaigning in Ohio, North Dakota and Washington state in the coming days. “This isn’t going to be over in a day or two.”

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