WASHINGTON - Mitt Romney completed another crucial defense in an important state last night. Once again, a combination of heavy spending, negative campaigning, and establishment backing staved off what could have been a crisis in his campaign.
But the narrow nature of the win in Michigan, where he was born and won handily in 2008, demonstrates continued weakness in his candidacy. And now he heads into a phase of the campaign where it will be difficult to land any knockout blows and clinch the nomination: Super Tuesday.
The March 6 vote by 10 states, including Massachusetts, will preface a potentially agonizing spring for the Republicans. It is the proverbial “long slog’’ Romney’s campaign says it has been preparing for since last year.
“This is when things change a little bit. It’s not about winning, it’s about delegates,’’ acknowledged a key Romney supporter who requested anonymity so he could speak freely about campaign strategy.
Even though 437 delegates are up for grabs next Tuesday, by far the biggest haul of the season, it is probable no clear-cut winner will emerge. That is because Republicans this year are allocating delegates proportional to each state’s vote - in most states, if a candidate wins, for example, a quarter of the vote, he gets a quarter of the delegates, even though he is not the overall winner.
Splitting the pot that way is designed to prevent a candidate from locking up the nomination early by capturing a bunch of winner-take-all states, as John McCain did in 2008.
The quest for the 1,144 delegates needed to clinch the nomination now depends on strong finishes, not necessarily wins, in as many states as possible.
Although Romney leads in the delegate count for now, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum are positioned to accumulate large numbers. Three conservative Super Tuesday states - Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Gingrich’s home state of Georgia - are especially unfriendly territory for the former Massachusetts governor.
Ohio, similar to Michigan in economic and political complexion, appears to be the biggest battleground state and will probably be the scene of the most intense struggle in coming days to define the Republican agenda. Romney wants to keep the focus on the economy and President Obama. His opponents keep pulling him into arguments about social issues and his own qualifications as a conservative.
Millionaires contributing unlimited sums to super PACs are helping both Santorum and Gingrich compete.
Gingrich’s chief sponsor, casino executive Sheldon Adelson, infused Gingrich’s cause with more millions this week. Gingrich forces assert they are poised for a Super Tuesday resurgence after losing in Florida and giving Santorum an opportunity to gain the mantle of top anti-Romney candidate. The super PAC supporting Gingrich said yesterday that it will air ads in four Super Tuesday states and three others, highlighting comments from voters who say Romney does not connect with them.
In addition to these problems, Romney has continued to commit gaffes that highlight his extraordinary wealth and make him appear insensitive to the concerns of regular people. Whether it be boasting of his wife’s Cadillacs or dismissing $375,000 in his speaking fees as “not very much,’’ he keeps generating negative sound bites.
At a prerace appearance at the Daytona 500 last weekend, he could have admitted he is not a huge fan of stock-car racing but is still excited by the speed and noise. Instead, he chose to relate to this red-state sport by saying he has wealthy pals who own NASCAR teams.
Such stumbles have begun to eclipse the economic proposals Romney wants to highlight.
Last Wednesday, he rolled out an aggressive plan for personal income tax cuts. He followed that up with a strong debate performance on Thursday. But then he spoke of Ann Romney’s Cadillacs in a near-empty Detroit football stadium on Friday. News coverage questioned his ability to connect with voters.
“The candidate sometimes makes some mistakes and so I’m trying to do better and work harder and make sure that we get our message across,’’ Romney said at a press conference in Michigan yesterday.
It all adds up to this: Romney fans hoping he can mimic McCain’s Super Tuesday feats in 2008 are almost certainly going to be disappointed. Four years ago, McCain mortally wounded or eliminated the competition on that day, which landed in February. Romney dropped out first, then Mike Huckabee. But that was with an abundance of winner-take-all states.
Given the new delegate rules, the geography of Super Tuesday, and the depth of Romney’s unpopularity among conservatives, the most likely scenario next week is a divided outcome.
“It will be less definitive’’ than 2008, said Barbara Norrander, a University of Arizona political science professor and specialist on primaries. The eventual outcome of the process, she said, “will depend on whether Santorum and Gingrich will behave like candidates in the past and drop out once they start to lag behind in delegate totals.’’
The alternative is they do well enough to stay close to Romney and never quit, taking their fight to the Republican convention.
Romney should perform well in the moderate Northeast bastions of Massachusetts and Vermont next week. Santorum’s appeals to Christian conservatives will not play as well there. Romney also has a big edge in Virginia because only he and Ron Paul will appear on the ballot (Gingrich and Santorum failed to submit the necessary signatures) If Romney breaks the 50 percent mark, the state’s rules call for him to win all 49 delegates.
“If he’s able to win all the delegates there, that pretty much neutralizes all of his other losses across the South,’’ said Josh Putnam, a political scientist at North Carolina’s Davidson College who closely monitors the Byzantine rules of the GOP primary contest.
Romney will be focused on building an insurmountable lead in delegates, much as Barack Obama did against Hillary Clinton in 2008. The Democrats’ reliance on proportional distribution was a leading reason for that prolonged primary season.
“It’s an incremental process that slowly inches toward 1,144,’’ said Putnam. “We’re going to be into April and probably May until we can say that [Romney’s] lead is healthy enough to put enough pressure points on the other candidates to drop out.’’
Specialists believe Ohio will be the premier battleground.
“Ohio really is a place that Romney needs to win, not only from the perspective of delegate counting, but Ohio, much like Michigan and other Midwestern states, really is a place that a candidate like Mitt Romney should be a natural fit with,’’ said David B. Cohen, a professor of political science at the University of Akron, in Ohio.
Santorum has been leading in the Buckeye State polls. A quirk of the rules gives Romney supporters hope for a strong showing in the delegate count, nonetheless. The state, like Michigan, awards a large percentage of delegates on a winner-take-all basis in individual congressional districts. That means Romney can pick up three delegates at a time around the state by winning liberal and moderate counties, such as Cuyahoga, which is home to Democrat-rich Cleveland.
Gerald Snyder, a financial planner in Brecksville and a member of the Cuyahoga Valley Republicans, is supporting Romney. To get back into strong front-runner status, said Snyder, Romney should stick to the nation’s financial picture.
“I think he got maybe trapped into the social-issue type situation, and started talking more along that line,’’ Snyder said. “He has come out of that, and he’s talking more about the economy and jobs and employment, and getting back to work.’’
Christopher Rowland can be reached at email@example.com.