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Romney wins Arizona, but is in a dogfight for Michigan

This news story was published on February 28, 2012.
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By Steven Thomma, McClatchy Newspapers –

WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney won the Arizona primary Tuesday, locking up an easy victory while fighting to win his native state of Michigan against a strong challenge from Rick Santorum.

(PHOTO: Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney meets with volunteers, Tuesday, February 28, 2012, at his campaign headquarters in Livonia, Michigan.)

Romney was declared the winner in Arizona soon after the polls closed at 9 p.m. EST, taking all of its 29 delegates and building his overall lead in the delegate count.

The emotional prize of the night, meanwhile, was Michigan, where Romney was born and where his father was a popular governor in the 1960s.

With 28 percent of the vote counted, Romney had 41 percent and Santorum had 38 percent. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas had 11 percent and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich had 7 percent.

While Romney’s candidacy could survive a second-place finish in Michigan, the loss would be an embarrassing sign of weakness and another invitation to Republican voters to rethink his candidacy heading into next week’s 10-state Super Tuesday contests.

In the 40 years since primaries took hold of the nominating process in 1972, only three major candidates have lost primaries in their birth state: Gerald Ford lost Nebraska in 1976, George W. Bush lost Connecticut in 2000, and Hillary Rodham Clinton lost Illinois in 2008.

None of them made as much of a claim to the state where they were born as Romney, who launched his 2008 campaign in Michigan and who said this time around, “Michigan has been my home and this is personal.”

Yet Romney’s once wide lead in Michigan gave way to a surge of interest in Santorum, the grandson of a Pennsylvania coal miner and a devout Roman Catholic who worked hard to connect with working-class voters in the industrial state and with evangelical Christians.

By primary day, Romney distanced himself a little from Michigan and downplayed the effect of a possible loss.

“If I were turned down by Massachusetts, where I have lived for the last 40 years and served as governor, that would be a little harder to explain,” the former governor of Massachusetts told Fox Business Network.

Speaking to reporters Tuesday in Michigan, Romney admitted mistakes.

“I’m very pleased with the campaign, its organization. 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 in his first news conference in three weeks.

Asked if he’d hurt his image with repeated remarks that critics have used to paint him as a wealthy elitist, he said, simply, “Yes.”

He also suggested that he’s faltered because rivals appealed to the party’s base with more vocal criticism of President Barack Obama.

“It’s very easy to excite the base with incendiary comments,” he said. “We’ve seen throughout the campaign that if you’re willing to say really outrageous things that are really accusative and attacking of President Obama, you’re going to jump up in the polls. I’m not willing to light my hair on fire to try and get support. I am what I am.”

Fueled by waves of negative TV ads, the contest grew so heated that Michigan’s results were disputed even before the polls closed, thanks to the fact that Democrats were allowed to vote in the open primary by changing their party registration temporarily on the spot.

Romney lashed out at Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, for seeking the votes of Democrats.

“Republicans have to recognize there’s a real effort to kidnap our primary process,” Romney said at his Michigan campaign headquarters Tuesday afternoon.

In a recorded phone call, Santorum’s campaign told Michigan voters that “Romney supported the bailouts for his Wall Street billionaire buddies but opposed the auto bailouts. That was a slap in the face of every Michigan worker and we’re not going to let Romney get away with it.”

The close Michigan contest strongly suggested that Romney and Santorum — with former speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich waiting in the wings — will continue to slug it out for weeks to come.

Romney expected to win the majority of the delegates up for grabs Tuesday. That would add to his overall delegate lead in a campaign that now looks like it will be a state-by-state, delegate-by-delegate competition stretching into the spring rather than an early coronation.

Romney looked likely to take all 29 delegates in winner-take-all Arizona. Even a second-place finish in Michigan could give him a solid share of its 30 delegates, which were being allocated proportionately by congressional district.

Entering Tuesday, Romney had 123 delegates, still well short of the 1,144 needed to win the nomination, according to the Associated Press. Santorum had 72, Gingrich 32 and Texas Rep. Ron Paul 19.

The race turns now to a coast-to-coast dash, with caucuses in Washington state on Saturday, then caucuses and primaries on March 6 in 10 “Super Tuesday” states: Alaska, Georgia, Idaho, Massachusetts, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Vermont and Virginia.

There will be 480 delegates up for grabs in that span, 43 in Washington and 437 on Super Tuesday. The Republicans hold their convention Aug. 27-30 in Tampa, Fla.

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