Mitt Romney’s double-barreled victory in the Arizona and Michigan primaries yesterday gave him a burst of momentum in the Republican presidential race as the contest shifts to Southern states and Ohio (STOOH1), where his appeal among evangelical and working class voters will be tested anew.
Two months into the voting and nine months into Romney’s second presidential run, the results confirmed his status as fragile front-runner, toiling to win over Republican voters as he heads into potentially pivotal Super Tuesday races March 6.
Those 11 races -- which yield a total haul of more than 400 delegates -- are shaping up as a last stand for Rick Santorum, the latest Romney rival to threaten the Massachusetts ex- governor -- as well as a chance for Romney to either solidify, or continue to grasp for, a hold on the nomination.
Either way, even Romney allies say there are no guarantees and the process will probably drag on for several weeks.
Super Tuesday “will probably be definitive to establish that Romney’s in a commanding position, but it won’t be over for a while,” said Charlie Black, who is advising the Romney campaign. “They’re prepared to go state to state in all the Super Tuesday states and beyond, and just grind it out.”
Romney, 64, has had to do more grinding than his campaign anticipated, most recently in his native Michigan (USUSMICH), where a late surge by Santorum, 53, a former Pennsylvania senator, threatened to yield an embarrassing Romney defeat. Instead, he won by 3 points -- a slim margin for the son of a former governor and Detroit automobile executive -- with most precincts reporting. His task was easier in Arizona, where he won by 20 points.
Campaigning today in Ohio, Romney credited those victories to his business background and focus on the economy, and called Santorum “an economic lightweight.”
During a town-hall meeting in suburban Columbus, Romney took questions from the audience, including from a woman who said she was a law student worried about her financial future because she doesn’t have access to subsidized student loans.
“I wish I could tell you that there’s a place to find really cheap money or free money that we can pay for everyone’s education,” Romney told her. “That’s just not going to happen.”
Call for Sacrifice
Romney made it clear at the end of his remarks that he would ask Americans to give up programs the nation can’t afford.
“A leader is someone who’s able to turn to the American people and ask them to sacrifice,” he said.
Earlier in the day, he focused on manufacturing jobs and China.
“I want to bring jobs back here,” he said at a steel fence post warehouse in Toledo. “I’m going to insist that China plays by the same rules everybody else in the world plays by, and if they do we’ll win jobs back.”
Romney, a former chief executive officer and co-founder of the private equity firm Bain Capital LLC, has said he would label China a currency manipulator, arguing that the country keeps the value of the yuan artificially low to encourage Chinese exports.
Joking with workers as he toured the American Posts LLC plant, Romney said, “I got to press the button. That will be my heavy lift in terms of manufacturing today.”
Joe the Plumber
Watching Romney speak was Samuel Wurzelbacher, who gained fame during the 2008 presidential election as “Joe the Plumber” and is running for Congress in Ohio this year.
“They like to pretend they’re blue-collar when they up there,” he told reporters, pointing to the stage where Romney had spoken.
“I go hunting and fishing and like outdoorsmen, so that’s the kind of people I know and can connect with,” said Wurzelbacher, a Republican who hasn’t endorsed anyone. “To me, hanging out in a roomful of bankers wouldn’t work for me.”
The latest polls show Romney trailing his rivals in states that award the most delegates next week, including Ohio, where he’s running behind Santorum, and Georgia, where former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich leads, followed by Santorum. Among the group Santorum has targeted are working class voters, defined by pollsters as those without college degrees.
Santorum at Pulpit
Santorum is also focusing his strategy on the large populations of socially conservative voters in Ohio, Oklahoma and Tennessee.
Campaigning today in Powell, Tennessee, he appeared at the pulpit of Temple Baptist Church, flanked by gilded lettering on both sides, a Bible verse and the phrase, “A vision for the world, a home for your family.”
“We had a much better night in Michigan than maybe was first reported,” he told the gathering of a few hundred people after the choir sang. “This was really a great race to go into, innocent, belly of the beast: the home town of my chief rival in the Republican primary.”
Months into a contest that has seen Romney challenged by a rotating cast of candidates who have risen and fallen, he still needs to persuade Republican voters that he’s striving for their support, said pollster Ed Goeas.
“The test for Romney has always been not to convince them that he is the most conservative, the test has always been to convince them that he’s not just taking them for granted, and he’s fighting for it,” said Goeas, of the Alexandria-based Tarrance Group who conducts the bipartisan Battleground Poll. “They haven’t been sending the message that he’s fighting for the nomination.”
Through all the ups and downs, Goeas said, voters have maintained a view that Romney is the most electable candidate, with more than half saying they see him as the likely nominee.
Still, the prospect of a prolonged primary concerns many strategists, who argue that the tone of the race is damaging the party’s candidates, alienating independent voters and undercutting Republican hopes of defeating President Barack Obama.
Obama’s prospects have brightened since November, according to the Politico/George Washington University Battleground Poll released Feb. 27. He was ahead of both of the leading Republicans, winning support from 53 percent in a hypothetical matchup with Romney, who drew 43 percent, and 53 percent in a head-to-head contest with Santorum, who got 42 percent.
“We need to look at this as a warning sign that we need to get this over with, and get back to focusing on us versus Obama,” Goeas said.
Before that can happen, Santorum is angling for a chance to compete directly against Romney in March, pushing to consolidate the support of anti-abortion activists and other Romney- resistant Republican voters and pull off upset victories that could frustrate the front-runner yet again.
“What March needs to be is where we get a one-on-one shot with Mitt Romney,” said John Brabender, Santorum’s chief strategist. To accomplish that the campaign must “have conservatives and Tea Party supporters who don’t want to vote for Romney say, ‘Look, we’ve got to pick somebody. Rick Santorum’s the one emerging. We’ve got to get behind him.’ ”
While Super Tuesday successes may not allow Romney to clinch the nomination, they could reveal his competitors’ weaknesses, thus building his momentum, said Steve Duprey, who advised Senator John McCain, the 2008 Republican nominee, during his presidential bid and now serves as a Republican National Committeeman from New Hampshire.
“Senator Santorum has somewhat solidified the non-Romney constituency, and these contests are going to test that,” Duprey said. “We’re going to see a trend -- either Romney will have to slog through ‘til May but he’ll be the nominee, or if Santorum wins some important states, this could be a wide-open race.”
The Republican Party’s decision to rewrite its rules to allow for more gradual awarding of delegates, drawing out the nominating process, “in hindsight may not have been a great idea,” putting the eventual nominee at a fundraising and image disadvantage relative to Obama, Duprey added.
“Romney’s had a tougher go, and I think that also reflects the reality that we have a Republican base that is of many different voices.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Julie Hirschfeld Davis in Washington at or Jdavis159@bloomberg.net; Lisa Lerer in Washington at email@example.com
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at Msilva34@bloomberg.net