He got a scare from Rick Santorum in the state where he grew up, but Romney returned to front-runner form Tuesday night.
Looking equal parts relieved and exhausted, Mitt Romney took the stage in Novi, Michigan, on Tuesday night to accept a hard-fought victory. "We didn't win by a lot, but we won by enough," he said, "and that's all that counts."
With most votes counted late Tuesday, Romney had prevailed in his native state by 3 percentage points over Rick Santorum, 41 percent to 38 percent, a difference of nearly 30,000 votes. It was an outcome that had seemed in doubt until the very end, with a panicked Romney unable to pull away from his scrappy competitor in a state that should have been a slam dunk -- a state he won by nine points four years ago. But in the end, he scraped by, and claimed a 22-point victory in Arizona as well. (Under the states' differing delegate rules, Romney will get all of Arizona's 29 delegates but will likely split Michigan's with Santorum.)
Santorum, for his part, tried to claim a moral victory in his election-night speech in Grand Rapids. "A month ago, they didn't know who we are, but they do now," he said. "We came into the backyard of one of my opponents in a race where everybody said, 'Just ignore it, you have no chance here.'"
So does Romney's narrow victory prove he's weak or strong? An analysis of that question and more as the candidates look ahead to Super Tuesday in a week:
*A win is a win: We're scoring this one for Romney's argument. True, it wasn't the sort of decisive drubbing he delivered in Florida, when he similarly needed a comeback against a then-surging Newt Gingrich. True, it's shocking Romney was ever as endangered as he was in the state where he grew up and his father was a popular governor. But Santorum bet it all on his Michigan model -- he argued that he could win Rust Belt states by appealing to a combination of rural social conservatives and blue-collar whites, and by doing so, prove his general-election viability. Instead, his weaknesses were on glaring display: He spent the last week before the primary reeling from a subpar debate performance and getting painted into an ever more extreme social-conservative corner. He called those who would send kids to college "snobs" and said President Kennedy -- the man who blazed a trail in presidential politics for Catholics like Santorum -- made him want to "throw up." Next to those kind of profoundly unappealing sentiments, Romney's cheery reference to owning a couple of Cadillacs looks positively innocuous.
Though Romney looked relaxed and natural in his speech Tuesday night, he still does not look like anybody's idea of a solid, consensus front-runner. But if he's still vulnerable in the primary, to whom or what is he vulnerable? Santorum, like Gingrich before him, now looks like severely damaged goods. His wan, halfhearted Tuesday night speech suggested that he knew it. Santorum was right: A lot of people who didn't know who he was a month ago do now. The question is how many like what they see.
*Romney won Republicans: In the final hours leading up to the Michigan vote, Romney's camp drew outraged attention to the fact that Santorum was trying to get Democrats to vote for him in the primary. In the end, just nine percent of the Michigan vote came from Democrats, according to exit polls, and 53 percent voted for Santorum. Meanwhile, Romney won Republicans by 11 points and independents by one. Expect to hear a lot more about this from Romney as he makes the case that despite Santorum's claim to speak for the conservative wing of the party, the Pennsylvanian is really being propped up by anti-Romney mischief-makers.
*More from the exits: Santorum began his speech by thanking his mother, his wife, and his eldest daughter at length, emphasizing their professional bona fides. He seemed to be implicitly going out of his way to assure women he took a modern view of their place in the workplace and role in society. Judging from the Michigan exits, he has reason to be concerned. Romney won men by just one point but women by five points over Santorum. Romney also won unmarried voters by a larger margin than he won married voters, perhaps in part due to Santorum's anti-contraception stance.
The exit polls also showed there was truth to the demographic conventional wisdom that was taking shape leading up to the Michigan primary. Romney won college graduates; Santorum won voters without a college degree. Romney won voters with incomes over $100,000; Santorum won those with lower incomes. Romney won non-union households, Santorum those with union members. Romney won urban and suburban voters, Santorum those in rural areas.
*Credit for Arizona: Romney also deserves credit for his win in Arizona, and not just because of the delegate haul. (We are of the view that all delegate counts are more or less dubious at this stage.) Though it became clear he was in for a landslide days before the vote and the other candidates didn't contest it much, Arizona showed that Romney retains his appeal in the Sun Belt, a general-election battleground just as much as the Rust Belt. It also showed that the Santorum wave wasn't a national phenomenon.
Super Tuesday is next: It's a less super Super Tuesday than four years ago, with 10 states voting as opposed to 20 in 2008, but it will nonetheless be a multistate national vote that might truly steer the race in a clear direction. The states are Alaska, Georgia, Idaho, Massachusetts, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Vermont, and Virginia, preceded by caucuses in Washington state on Saturday. Gingrich is making a last stand in his old home state of Georgia. Santorum is looking to Ohio to double down on his Rust Belt bet. Ron Paul hopes to make a statement in Virginia, where only he and Romney are on the ballot. Stay tuned. The story continues.
Image credit: Rebecca Cook / Reuters
Molly Ball is Time magazine’s national political correspondent and a former staff writer at The Atlantic.