The GOP nomination contest has entered its most critical two-week period yet, with primaries in Michigan and Arizona on February 28; the Washington caucuses on March 3, and then the eleven-state extravaganza of Super Tuesday, March 6.
With Rick Santorum now holding a steady lead over Mitt Romney in national polls of Republicans, it is crucial for Romney that he win his native state of Michigan to regain momentum, reassure party elites, and replenish his diminished financial coffers.
Romney and his Super-PAC are reportedly outspending Santorum’s forces in Michigan by about a 3-1 margin, and are fielding a mix of positive and negative ads. An early PPP poll showing Santorum sprinting out to a 15-point lead in Michigan now looks to be an outlier; PPP’s latest survey in the state shows Santorum only up by three points, and at least one other poll shows Romney regaining a small lead. Everyone agrees the contest is very close, with support patterns indicating Santorum holding his customary leads among evangelicals and “very conservative” voters, and Romney doing well with “moderates” and Tea Party skeptics. Polling of Arizona (where Romney benefits from a sizable LDS vote) is also becoming available, uniformly giving Romney a single-digit lead. A wild-card in Arizona is that Newt Gingrich is doing relatively well there (unlike Michigan, where he’s running fourth behind Ron Paul); one theory is that his supporters could break to Santorum on primary day.
All of these dynamics make tonight’s CNN candidate debate in Arizona very important. It could, in fact, be the last televised debate of the entire contest. One possibility is that both panelists and the other candidates could gang up on Santorum, who’s been under attack as a “fiscal liberal” by his rivals, and as an erratic religious extremist by many news media observers. (In a potentially significant, and certainly unprecedented development, two conservative opinion-leaders considered supportive of Romney, Matt Drudge and Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin, have suddenly begun attacking Santorum’s religion-based views on cultural issues). Santorum, who’s been a relatively strong debater, could try to duplicate Gingrich’s successful tactic of turning attacks on his tormenters. And of course Gingrich himself, not to mention Ron Paul (who’s shown recent interest in going after Santorum) will be factors as well. It would be a particularly poor moment for any candidate to commit a gaffe.
If February 28 produces anything less than a dual Romney win in Michigan and Arizona, Super Tuesday could become dicey for Mitt (it is generally assumed Santorum is likely to win the March 3 caucuses in Washington). He’s beginning to experience money troubles thanks to his heavy spending and his lack of an ideologically-driven small donor base. Romney does have some Super Tuesday advantages: his home state of Massachusetts votes then, and he and Ron Paul are the only candidates on the ballot in Virginia.
The most alarming threat to Romney would be a divide-and-conquer strategy where Santorum concentrates on the biggest prize, Ohio, while Gingrich’s Super-PAC spends the fresh $10 million it has reportedly received from casino mogul, Sheldon Adelson, to focus on Georgia, Tennessee and perhaps Oklahoma. Additionally, Paul is expected to concentrate on small-state caucuses where he could do additional damage to Romney’s delegate count.
There are also new rumblings of discontent from elite Republican circles where a Santorum (or Gingrich) nomination is considered potentially catastrophic, while Romney’s perpetual inability to win over conservative voters or show much appeal to independents is perpetually troubling. One “prominent Republican senator” informed a reporter last week that if Romney loses Michigan, he will go public with a call for a draft of Jeb Bush. While there’s zero evidence Republican voters are interested in a late entry or a “brokered convention,” or that any particular “white knight” could avoid the pitfalls that have snared the actual candidates, it is obvious Romney would suffer from major defections of elite party support, if only among his funding sources.
All in all, it would be very prudent for Romney to win Arizona and Michigan next Tuesday. If he loses both, the craziness will really intensify and almost anything could happen. Alas, it just keeps getting better and better for President Obama.
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