Mitt Romney’s double-barreled victory in the Arizona and Michigan primaries yesterday gave him a burst of momentum in the Republican presidential race as the contest shifts to Southern states and Ohio (STOOH1), where his appeal among evangelical and working class voters will be tested anew.
Two months into the voting and nine months into Romney’s second presidential run, the results confirmed his status as fragile front-runner, toiling to win over Republican voters as he heads into potentially pivotal Super Tuesday races March 6.
Those 11 races -- which yield a total haul of more than 400 delegates -- are shaping up as a last stand for Rick Santorum, the latest Romney rival to threaten the Massachusetts ex- governor -- as well as a chance for Romney to either solidify, or continue to grasp for, a hold on the nomination.
Either way, even Romney allies say there are no guarantees and the process will likely drag on for several weeks.
Super Tuesday “will probably be definitive to establish that Romney’s in a commanding position, but it won’t be over for a while,” said Charlie Black, who is advising the Romney campaign. “They’re prepared to go state to state in all the Super Tuesday states and beyond, and just grind it out.”
Romney, 64, has had to do more grinding than his campaign anticipated, most recently in his native Michigan (USUSMICH), where a late surge by Santorum, 53, a former Pennsylvania senator, threatened to yield an embarrassing Romney defeat. Instead, he won by 3 points -- still a narrow margin for the son of a former governor and Detroit automobile executive -- with most of the precincts reporting. His task was easier in Arizona, where he was leading by 22 points.
The latest polls show Romney trailing his rivals in states that award the most delegates next week, including Ohio, where he’s running behind Santorum, and Georgia, where former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich leads, followed by Santorum. Among the group Santorum has targeted are working class voters, defined by pollsters as those without college degrees.
Months into a contest that has seen Romney challenged by a rotating cast of candidates who have risen and fallen, he still needs to persuade Republican voters that he’s striving for their support, said pollster Ed Goeas.
“The test for Romney has always been not to convince them that he is the most conservative, the test has always been to convince them that he’s not just taking them for granted, and he’s fighting for it,” said Goeas, of the Alexandria-based Tarrance Group who conducts the bipartisan Battleground Poll. “They haven’t been sending the message that he’s fighting for the nomination.”