Romney hangs in, but Super Tuesday could keep rivals alive

Imagine if Mitt Romney had lost the primary in his native state of Michigan last night, rather than beating Rick Santorum by 3 points. (Santorum is calling the results a “tie” because they picked up the same number of delegates.) There would be feverish calls for a new white knight candidate to enter the race. Instead, there is a growing chorus of voices  bemoaning the long, negative primary and calling for it to be over so Republicans can go back to attacking President Obama instead of each other.

But Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and Ron Paul are hanging in because Super Tuesday offers a delegate rich smorgasboard of states with the possibility of delegates for everyone, thanks to the system of proportional representation Republicans adopted in many states this year.

On March 6 “Super Tuesday” 10 states vote and 437 delegates are at stake out of the 1,144 needed to win. Romney will face a challenge in conservative Southern states (Oklahoma, Tennessee, Georgia) where Newt Gingrich hopes to repeat his South Carolina surge, as well as in the battleground state of Ohio, where Santorum enjoyed an 11-point lead in recent polls. Romney is expected to do well in Massachusetts, Idaho, Vermont, North Dakota, and in Virginia — a state in which only he and Ron Paul are on the ballot. Because of the proportional system, all the candidates rivals can pick up delegates on a county-by-county basis, even if they don’t win a particular state. So there is still a good chance that the drama will continue into the spring — especially if big donors keep writing big checks to keep the show on the road.

Still, Romney is in a good position. The former Massachusetts governor has doggedly amassed more delegates than all the other candidates combined. Though they haven’t come cheap. The Romney campaign and the pro-Romney PAC have also vastly outspent everyone else in the field. Pro-Romney forces outspent Santorum 2 to 2 in Michigan ($4.2 million to $2.1 million, according to Politico.) And the $38.5 million he has spent so far is more than all his challengers combined.

And his rivals look chastened. The leading non-Romney alternative candidate, Santorum fumbled his chance to upset the race last night. Earlier this month he was leading Romney by double-digits in the state where Romney had been born and raised, and where his father had been governor. While Romney was boasting about his wife driving “a couple of Cadillacs” and his friendships with the owners of NASCAR teams, Santorum was able to connect with the kind of voters who Romney and Obama both have trouble courting — blue collar workers, less-educated and less-affluent voters.

Now even some Republicans are accusing Santorum of blowing it by pushing his populist culture-warrior persona too far: calling Obama a “snob” for championing post-secondary education, doubling down on a past comment that John F. Kennedy’s speech on the separation of church and state made him “want to throw up“, and allowing his views on contraception to became a focus of debates.

Exit polls suggest that Santorum lost the women’s vote in Michigan by 5 percentage points to Romney in Michigan, and lost the Catholic vote as well. He seemed to recognize that he over-reached. He said he’d like to take back his JFK remark.  The opening minutes of his speech last night were striking for its focus on his mother as a working woman who at once out-earned his father — presumably a belated attempt to reassure female voters. He’s trying to undo the damage, but the clock is ticking.