NOVI, Mich. - Mitt Romney narrowly won the Michigan primary last night, staving off a strong challenge from Rick Santorum to avert a highly embarrassing loss in the state where the former Massachusetts governor was born and raised.
The win - coupled with another in Arizona yesterday - gives Romney crucial momentum heading into Super Tuesday next week.
“We didn’t win by a lot but we won by enough,’’ Romney told a crowd of cheering supporters in suburban Detroit. “And that’s all that counts.’’
Romney handily won Arizona’s primary, claiming 29 delegates in the winner-take-all contest. Most analysts had projected that race for Romney, who held a lead in polls.
It was Michigan - the state where Romney’s father governed for three terms - that gave him more trouble and, in the end, the victory he needed.
With 88 percent of precincts reporting, Romney was leading with 41 percent to Santorum’s 38 percent. Ron Paul claimed 12 percent of the vote, and Newt Gingrich trailed with 7 percent.
“I take great pride in my Michigan roots, and am humbled to have received so much support here these past few weeks. On to the March contests,’’ Romney tweeted after the vote.
Santorum, who called Romney to concede shortly after 10 p.m., said the fact that the race was even close was a victory of sorts.
“We came into the backyard of one of my opponents in a race that everyone said, well, just ignore it, you really have no chance here,’’ he said at a Grand Rapids hotel. “And the people of Michigan looked into the hearts of the candidates, and all I have to say is: I love you back.’’
Romney got the two-state sweep he was hoping for, to give his campaign a valuable shot of momentum.
But the fact that Romney had to struggle to win in Michigan cast doubt over one of his chief arguments for the nomination - that he is the most electable against President Obama. Michigan offered a test for how each candidate would perform in the industrial Midwest and whether they could win over the blue-collar workers who are crucial deciders in the swing states that will determine the general election.
Romney’s campaign, which once hoped to dispatch its rivals quickly, now is prepared for a battle that could stretch for months and be focused primarily on a hunt for delegates. He is planning to travel to Ohio today, before a trip to South Dakota and Washington state.
The nominating contest now moves to the 10 states that vote on Super Tuesday next week. But each candidate is likely to find a region where he can fare well, which could keep the race in a state of flux for weeks, if not months.
Santorum was backed in Michigan by evangelical Christians and those who consider themselves very conservative, while Romney fared best among moderates and those with high incomes, according to exit polls. In perhaps one indication of the lingering affection for Romney’s father, George, he won overwhelmingly among senior voters.
Romney seemed to match any advantage Santorum thought he had among Tea Party supporters; support was evenly divided between the two men among those who identify with the movement.
Romney opened each stump speech with memories of his childhood. He reminded voters that he was born in Harper Hospital in Detroit, that he went to kindergarten at Hampton School, that he visited county fairs with his father. He commented about how the trees in his native state were “just the right height,’’ and about how he loved the Great Lakes (and all the little ones). Referring to the local ginger ale, his wife, Ann, remarked that she and her husband “bleed Vernor’s.’’
Just weeks ago, Michigan was expected to be a cakewalk for Romney. He had deep ties here and had maintained a double-digit lead. But after Santorum won three states in a single day - Missouri, Minnesota, and Colorado - the former senator from Pennsylvania began to surge in the polls, uniting factions within the party that have distrusted Romney.
With backing from social conservatives and Tea Party activists, Santorum sprang to a 15-point lead in one poll. Romney slowly chipped away at that lead over the past two weeks, with a series of television ads, key endorsements such as Governor Rick Snyder’s, and increasingly pointed attacks against Santorum.
The other two candidates in the race, Gingrich and Paul, campaigned little in Michigan and Arizona and instead focused on the Super Tuesday states.
Yesterday, Romney and his aides bitterly complained about Santorum’s unusual tactic of phoning Democrats and urging them to get to the polls and vote for him in the Republican primary. Romney accused his rival of “dirty tricks’’ and said he was trying to “kidnap our primary process.’’
The state has an open primary system, which means voters can request any ballot regardless of their party registration.
“We’re proving the point that we can attract the voters that we need to win states like Michigan,’’ Santorum said at a diner in Kentwood. But only about 10 percent of those who voted in the primary were Democrats. About 60 percent were Republicans, according to exit polls conducted by the Associated Press.
Voters said the economy was the top issue on their minds, and three in ten said someone in their household had lost a job in the past three years, according to the exit polls.
While an outright victory in the popular vote would have provided a boost into Super Tuesday, Santorum aides said their candidate could leave Michigan with more delegates than Romney. With returns still coming in, Santorum campaign aides were optimistic that Santorum could carry up to nine of the 14 congressional districts.
“I don’t want to oversell it, but it’s about the delegate count. Everybody should be watching that. That’s what this whole game is about,’’ said John Brabender, a senior strategist for the Santorum campaign.
Romney had a clear home field advantage, he said. “There’s a home and away,’’ he said. “There’s still a lot of states to go.’’
Despite Romney’s winning both contests last night, his victories are unlikely to still all the voices in the Republican Party worried about his ability to lock in the GOP nomination - despite the most robust fund-raising network, organizational strength, and endorsements.
Romney admitted yesterday to mistakes he has made in his campaign and acknowledged that his comments about his wealth are hurting his chances.
“I’m trying to do better and work harder and make sure that we get our message across,’’ he said at a press conference at his campaign office in Livonia. Asked what mistakes he was referring to, he laughed. “Oh, I can’t imagine you would have a hard time coming up with anything,’’ he said. “Never repeat your mistakes.’’
Romney on Friday noted that his wife owned “two Cadillacs.’’ Two days later, at the Daytona 500, he told an Associated Press reporter that he did not follow the sport as closely as ardent fans, but he knew some of the team owners.
Facing a rival who has surged while making some controversial statements - including calling Obama “a snob’’ for promoting higher education - Romney yesterday also made the case that the Republican Party should nominate someone more measured. “You know, it’s very easy to excite the base with incendiary comments,’’ Romney said. “We’ve seen throughout the campaign that if you’re willing to say really outrageous things . . . you’re going to jump up in the polls.
“I’m not willing to light my hair on fire to try and get support,’’ he added. “I am who I am.’’