WITHOUT an equally favourable outcome in Arizona, Mitt Romney’s victory in the Michigan primary would have been portrayed by the media as a hollow one at best – a crisis averted. Losing Michigan, however, would have wounded Romney, perhaps mortally. But with a landslide in Arizona and a marginal victory in his home state, Romney has made it more difficult for the press – and his opponents – to make sense of his sweep on Tuesday night.
The Michigan contest was bruising, however. It was not just a fight Romney’s campaign hadn’t expected, but one it could ill-afford to lose once battle commenced. In expending millions of increasingly scarce dollars to win (Romney’s largest donors have mostly maxed out their legal limit), Romney was forced to divert funds that would have been much better utilised for delegates on Super Tuesday. In truth, however, he had few options. As general George S. Patton observed, “a pint of sweat saves a gallon of blood.”
Even in defeat Rick Santorum’s campaign will claim victory, pointing to Romney’s home field and sizeable financial advantage. However, it’s also a missed opportunity. When he had the chance to shine during the debate, Santorum excused his voting record on the grounds that “politics is a team sport, folks.” He appeared as the consummate Washington insider. When given the opportunity to recover, he unleashed a wave of controversial remarks on education and the separation of church and state. Michiganders were ripe for his blue collar economic message, but received a lecture in theology. At the ballot box, even Catholics turned their backs on him.
Santorum has an immediate opportunity to bounce back in Saturday’s Washington caucus, but it’s in Ohio – a neighbouring state to his native Pennsylvania – he’ll be looking to get back on track. Santorum has polled well in Ohio, but he will have to convince voters in the Buckeye State that he’s still a winner. His cause is not helped by the fact that he failed to get on the ballot for three of Ohio’s 16 congressional districts and will be ineligible for nine of the state’s 66 delegates. He also fell short in making the ballot in Virginia, a state only Romney and Ron Paul will be contesting.
Super Tuesday is also the day Newt Gingrich is looking to rebound. Gingrich has already conceded that if he loses his native Georgia and struggles in the south he’ll have to reconsider his options. However, he’ll also be looking to compete in Ohio. Gingrich is well aware that Santorum’s strength is hurting his own campaign and has increasingly been channeling his attacks against the former senator. One has become used to writing Gingrich off, but he is now well-financed and he’s demonstrated a great deal of prescience in focusing on an issue that hits Americans in the pocketbook like few others: the price at the pump.
Romney may well have assuaged some doubts on Tuesday night, but if he fails to gain momentum and pick up any sizeable victories outside of Massachusetts, Vermont, and Virginia, questions will again be asked about his fitness to be the nominee. Ohio is clearly the prize. If Romney can win there it will be his opponents facing the daunting questions, namely whether their candidacies still have a pulse.
Ewan Watt is a Washington DC-based consultant. You can follow him on @ewancwatt