That's not to dismiss the importance of these two Tuesday primaries. They are the first major contests since Santorum, a former U.S. from Pennsylvania, unexpectedly won a trio of states in early February and surged to become Romney's chief rival. More delegates will be awarded on Tuesday -- 59 -- than on any single night during the campaign thus far. For Romney, whose campaign has prepared for a long campaign of collecting delegates to win the nomination, the 59 at stake on Tuesday are critical. He's boosted by the fact that Arizona's Mormon population has made him a heavy favorite in a state that awards all 29 of its delegates to the winner. Romney has the early delegate lead with 105, according to data collected by the Associated Press.
Twitter was humming with analysis about what was at stake on Tuesday night. Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, wondered if Romney, should he win the two states, would be able to capitalize in a way he did not after wins in New Hampshire, Florida and Nevada. "He'll have to keep spending big" to keep moving forward, Sabato wrote. GOP strategist Mike Murphy replied that Washington state's March 3 caucuses equal "trouble" for Romney. In other words, he might follow any wins with a loss four days later.
In Michigan, where he grew up, Romney has already completed a comeback of sorts. Santorum surged in national polls after winning Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri on Feb. 7, and seemed to have momentum in the Wolverine State. But the Romney campaign has heavily outspent Santorum there, emphasizing Romney's roots in the state. Polls of the race show a close battle, with Romney holding a slight edge.
"My guess [is] Romney ekes it out in Michigan," Feehery said. "Because of structural capabilities, he'll be able to do better than people think. But it's still going to be a long haul because of delegates."
A win would underscore yet again the Romney machine's potency, which a month earlier similarly halted Newt Gingrich's momentum before the Florida primary. But it also raises questions about the strength of candidate himself. Time and again, he has made unforced errors and has had to rely on his superior organization and fundraising apparatus to fend off his rivals. His performance on the campaign trail, marred by remarks that suggest he's out of touch with the lives of the non-rich, has hardly been reassuring to his party.
Beyond that, Michigan and Arizona are favorable ground for the former Massachusetts governor. Twin victories on Tuesday night, particularly if Michigan is tight, would not necessarily allow him to claim he's finally vaulted past his rivals' reach.
A victory for Santorum in Michigan would cap an incredible month for the ex-senator. He started February as an also-ran who had finished a distant third in Florida, and ended it as a legitimate contender after winning four of the last six GOP contests. Late polls in Michigan indicate he's in a statistical dead heat with Romney.