A bad night for the GOP frontrunners

Mitt Romney’s win in his native Michigan was supposed to be a given just a few weeks ago. But yesterday’s close call reinforces the perception that Romney is not yet connecting with the party base. His observation that he’d gotten “just enough” support was accurate, but his closing speech did nothing to stir the base as we near Super Tuesday on March 6.

The tightly fought contest with Rick Santorum has been costly to the Romney camp. Financial resources were spent in what should have been an easy win in Michigan and Romney’s explanations regarding his opposition to the auto bailout failed to resonate with the state’s voters. Barack Obama, seizing on the opportunity that Romney gave him on the auto bailout, visited Michigan and actually made gains in voter approval, with Michigan appearing likely to remain Democratic in November.

Arizona with its “winner takes all” delegate system did give Romney some bragging rights, but little momentum for next Tuesday. This will make the Ohio primary of Super Tuesday a likely replay of the Michigan contest. Santorum knows this, and he will try to stage an upset similar to the Iowa caucuses in early January. His lead in the Ohio polls with just one week to go indicates that the race will be close.

Santorum, coming off three victories a couple of weeks ago, appeared to have the momentum to pull a Michigan upset. A poor debate performance, a needless reference to JFK’s 1960 speech on the separation of Church and State, and calling Obama a “snob” for encouraging young people to pursue higher education all contributed to his collapse. Santorum came across as a polarizing and divisive figure. True, his sincerity appears more genuine than Romney’s, but his rhetoric is off-putting for some crucial constituencies, such as women. He may yet pull an upset in Ohio and do well in southern states, but his closing in Michigan showed he was not ready for primetime.

On Super Tuesday, seven states and three caucuses will be in play. Each of the four candidates has the potential to win some significant contests—Newt Gringrich in Georgia, and maybe Tennessee; Ron Paul in the caucus states, where his ground game is suited to this type of contest; Rick Santorum in Ohio in a replay of his Michigan showdown with Romney; and Romney could once again regain the inevitability if he wins Ohio and some southern states. All in all, however, Super Tuesday, with its 419 delegates at stake, will not be as decisive as once thought.

The race may yet be a protracted crawl toward the 1,144 delegates necessary to clinch the nomination. Romney’s failure to win big in Michigan robs him of momentum for Super Tuesday, and Santorum’s lack of message discipline in the last week now makes less attractive as a potential nominee. This is why Tuesday may turn out to have been a lose-lose night for the Republican Party.