Mitt Romney grabbed a strong win in Arizona for reasons that have little to do with a superior campaign, and he had to sweat bullets before squeaking out a narrow, must-have victory over Rick Santorum in Michigan, Romney's own home state. He won the latter only by relying on negative ads and heavily outspending Santorum. Yet that leaves Romney with little chance of locking up the GOP presidential nomination in the 10-state, Super Tuesday slugfest next week, and facing an unexpectedly long and brutal slog through the full primary calendar into June.
This surely isn't what Romney expected going into the primaries, but it has to be precisely what Santorum hoped for. Romney's thin and tinny message on the economy hardly elevates him over Santorum's evangelical passion. And the longer he runs and the more pressure he's under, the more gaffes he seems to make.
Speaking in a near-deserted Detroit football stadium last week, for instance, Romney drew wide coverage for joking about his wife having several Cadillacs as he discussed his opposition to the auto bailout. In another rally, he downplayed his massive wealth by dismissing his $375,000 in speaking fees last year as "not very much" money. And he told NASCAR fans at the Daytona 500 over the weekend that though he wasn't a big fan of NASCAR races, he had several rich buddies who owned racing teams.
It was probably to Romney's advantage that he and his opponents paid little attention to Arizona. Sen. John McCain soldiered around the state as Romney's chief speech maker and supporter, and fully 60 percent of the state's registered Republicans voted early weeks ago -- well before Santorum's surge.
That combination -- if not Romney's actual absence -- surely fueled Romney's 20-point margin over Santorum. And Arizona's winner-take-all, closed primary (only registered Republicans could vote) awarded him all 29 of the Republican delegates at stake. By comparison, his 41 percent of the vote in the draining competition for Michigan, and Santorum's 37 percent, produced just 13 delegates for each.
All other pending primaries have to apportion delegates according to the percentage of the candidates' votes. With 1,144 delegates needed to sow up the GOP nomination, there's hardly any way -- if current polls are accurate -- that Romney, Santorum or their weaker opponents, Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich, could accumulate enough delegates to claim the nomination before June. After Tuesday's results, Romney had 165 delegates, Santorum 85, Gingrich 32 and Paul 19.
On Super Tuesday, Romney needs to capture Ohio, a must-win state for the GOP in the November general election. But to win there, he will have to whittle his campaigning elsewhere. Santorum presently holds the lead in the polls in Ohio, Tennessee and Oklahoma. Gingrich is ahead in Georgia, his home state. And Romney leads in Virginia, Vermont and Massachusetts, where he served as governor. The candidates' standing going into week's caucuses in Alaska, Idaho and North Dakota is more murky.
The increasingly apparent prospect is for a dispiriting battle between a tin-eared, silver-spoon over-achiever whose main asset is his wealth and that of his friends and their super PACS, versus a former senator-turned-lobbyist who passionately seeks to assign his rigid evangelical views to Americans beneath him while he dismantles their safety net. The good thing about a longer primary season is that they have plenty of time to reveal themselves, and the austere place to which they would they would lead the nation.