Michigan primary winner poised to become GOP frontrunner

CBS

2012 - Elections Mitt Romney Rick Santorum
CBS
Mitt Romney is having fun. Or so he says.

Speaking in Albion, Michigan on Monday, Romney told a crowd of about 350 people that campaigning "sure has been fun these last ten days or so."

"We started off what, 15 points down in the polls," Romney said. "Now we are leading in the polls. Thanks you guys."

Two weeks ago, polls were showing Rick Santorum, fresh off a three-state sweepthat gave him a surge in momentum, with a lead in Michigan (though in most cases, it was less than 15 points); now polls of the state's GOP primary voters show a very tight race, and it's anyone's guess who will be able to claim Michigan after the polls close later today. 

Still, it seems a stretch to say all this has added up to a good time for the former Massachusetts governor, for whom a loss in the Wolverine State would be a major blow. Romney was born in Michigan, and his father was both governor and a prominent auto executive in the state; his campaign has been running positive ads reminding Michigan voters of his roots in hope of rekindling fond memories of his family. Romney's campaign and the super PAC backing him have spent millions of dollars on advertising in Michigan in hopes of helping Romney avoid the black eye that would come with a home-state loss. He's also been campaigning aggressively in the state, with the exception of a weekend fundraising jaunt to Florida made necessary by the fact that he is burning through his campaign cash more than twice as fast as he has been able to raise it.

Video: What happens if Romney loses Michigan?
Rick Santorm's martyr complex
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For Santorum, meanwhile, a victory would offer something virtually impossible to imagine just a few weeks ago: Frontrunner status. Speaking on Grand Rapids radio Monday, Santorum said "we've got a real chance here in probably the biggest upset of the primary season" - and he's got a point. Santorum lacks the financial resources, establishment support or organization of his rival; to beat Romney despite all that - and in his own backyard - would be a major achievement.

If Santorum pulls out a victory in Michigan, he'll have serious momentum ahead of Super Tuesday, where there are primaries in three important Southern states where he is well positioned to do well: Tennessee, Oklahoma and Newt Gingrich's home state of Georgia. (Gingrich, who is skipping Michigan, is hoping for a comeback built on these very states; if Santorum wins Tuesday, Gingrich will have a hard time mounting it.) With a win in Michigan on Tuesday, Santorum would also get a boost ahead of the Super Tuesday primary in the swing state of Ohio, where a new poll shows Santorum with a slight lead over Romney

There are 30 delegates up for grabs in Michigan, and they are allotted proportionately; that's why Ron Paul has been campaigning in the state despite polls showing him with virtually no chance of victory. There is also a primary on Tuesday in Arizona, where 29 delegates are up for grabs; that contest has gotten far less attention because (1) polls suggest Romney holds a double-digit lead and (2) delegates awarded in a winner-take-all fashion, which combined with Romney's lead has discouraged the candidates from campaigning there.

Going into Tuesday, Romney leads in CBS News' Delegates to Date Estimate, with 115 delegates; he's followed by Santorum with 47, Gingrich with 30 and Paul with 15. A candidate needs 1,144 delegates to secure the nomination; even after the Michigan and Arizona delegates are allocated, the candidates will still be far from what they need for victory. They fight hard for these early states regardless because strong showings translate into positive headlines, an uptick in donations and improved poll numbers that can ultimately propel them to the nomination.

One wildcard Tuesday has to do with the fact that Michigan is an open primary, which means Democrats and independents can participate. The liberal blog The Daily Kos is encouraging liberals to vote for Santorum in order to "keep the GOP clown show going"; Democratic political consultant Joe DiSano is urging Michigan Democrats to vote Santorum in a robo-call, and the chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party is reminding state Democrats they can still participate in the state's Democratic caucuses on May 5 if they vote in the GOP contest.

In recent days, Romney has been castingSantorum, who is getting Secret Service protection for the first time this week, as a Washington insider who was all too willing to "take one for the team" and vote against his conscience while in the Senate. "He has worked as a lobbyist and worked as an elected official and that's fine," Romney said Monday in Rockford. "But if the issue of the day is the economy I think to create jobs it helps to have a guy as president who has had a job and I have."

The comments also point to the fact that Santorum has waded into a number of controversial social issues in recent days despite the fact that voters overwhelmingly say they are focused on the economy. It's hard to say what impact Santorum's rhetoric on the value of higher education, the role of religion in public life and other issues will have with GOP primary voters in Michigan, but the fact that Santorum penned an op-ed on the economy for the Wall Street Journal on Monday suggests his campaign is concerned about Santorum being seen as insufficiently focused on economic issues. (The op-ed prompted Romney to say Monday that he is "glad [Santorum] recognizes this is going to be a campaign about the economy.")

Not that Santorum is backing off his aggressive posture on the separation of church and state, which included his comment yesterday that John F. Kennedy's speech suggesting his Catholic faith would not dictate how he governed made Santorum want to "throw up."

"Freedom of worship is not just what you do within the sanctuary," he said in Livonia, Michigan on Monday. "It's how you practice your faith outside the sanctuary, and at least in the America that I grew up in and that used to be around, that was freedom of religion. That was what this country was founded upon."

A Romney victory on Tuesday could give him an important boost of momentum and position him to - possibly - wrap up the nomination relatively soon; a loss could set the stage for a long slog in which the candidates battle for delegates into June against the backdrop of a potentially-contested convention. Already, the nasty GOP primary fight seems it could be taking its toll on all the GOP candidates: One new poll out Monday showed that President Obama has surged to a double-digit lead against both Romney and Santorum in the battleground states, with Romney's unfavorable rating having risen to 51 percent.

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