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Romney edges Santorum in Michigan, wins big in Arizona


This news story was published on February 29, 2012.
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By Paul West, Maeve Reston and Seema Mehta, Los Angeles Times –

NOVI, Mich. — Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney won the Michigan and Arizona primaries on Tuesday, holding off conservative challenger Rick Santorum and gaining sorely needed momentum into the big round of Super Tuesday contests.

(PHOTO: Republican Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney waves to the crowd with his wife Ann after his acceptance speech to his supporters after the results to Michigan’s Republican Primary at the Suburban Collection Showplace in Novi, Michigan, Tuesday, February 28, 2012.)

For Romney, the Michigan results marked a narrow escape from what would have been a disastrous setback in his native state. The race turned out to have been far more competitive, and expensive, than his campaign had anticipated. And winning required all of the considerable advantages he brought to the fight: money, organization, family connections and the near-universal support of the Republican establishment.

But his struggle to carry a state he won easily four years ago was unlikely to erase questions about the potency of his appeal to GOP voters and the strength of his claim to the front-runner’s mantle. His margin of victory — about 3 percentage points — was less than half of his 2008 margin over John McCain, who went on to become the nominee that year.

“We didn’t win by a lot, but we won by enough, and that’s all that counts,” Romney told supporters who chanted “Mitt, Mitt, Mitt” at a celebration in the Detroit suburb of Novi.

He cast his victory as a comeback. “Just a week ago, the pundits and the pollsters, they were ready to count us out,” he said, thanking voters in both states, and calling the results in Michigan “particularly special for me because this is the place where I was born.”

Romney, who has relied disproportionately on contributions from supporters able to give the maximum amount, made a pitch for donations at his campaign website. That sort of plea has been routine for his underfinanced rivals but was a departure for Romney, and reflected the unexpected strains of a prolonged race on his campaign’s resources.

Santorum, his popularity slipping in national polls, had hoped to validate his status as the leading conservative in the party. That he ran a close race against a heavily favored foe was encouraging to his supporters, but the twin defeats likely weakened him going into next Tuesday, when 11 states will choose delegates.

Santorum sounded upbeat as he addressed supporters in Grand Rapids, even as the election was being called for Romney.

“A month ago, they didn’t know who we are. But they do now!” he said. Portraying himself as an underdog who “really had no chance” competing in Romney’s “backyard,” he said that the “people of Michigan looked into the hearts of the candidates. And all I can say is, ‘I love you back.’” His lone reference to Romney was a dig at his rival’s health care plan as governor of Massachusetts.

Romney won 29 delegates in winner-take-all Arizona. He and Santorum were expected to divide the 30 delegates from Michigan, where delegates were awarded based on victories in congressional districts.

As expected, Romney ran up large margins in the Detroit area. His 30,000-vote edge in suburban Oakland County, the most populous Republican county in the state and the one where he was raised, accounted for virtually his entire statewide margin over Santorum. Romney ran TV ads reminding voters of his area ties as the son of George Romney, a popular three-term governor. Santorum was winning in rural areas and around Grand Rapids, the largest city in conservative west Michigan.

Repeating a pattern from earlier contests, Romney outspent his foe in an ad war that brought the highly negative tone of the Republican nomination fight into the first industrial state primary of the year.

Santorum drew enthusiastic crowds in the closing days of the campaign and was thought to have the most devoted supporters. Romney, however, began election day with a potentially crucial advantage: a solid lead among those who cast absentee ballots. Opinion surveys suggested that he might have gained as much as a 50,000-vote lead among those who voted early.

The caustic race in Michigan ended in a bitter round of name-calling on election day. Romney, speaking to volunteers at a campaign office, described Santorum as an “economic lightweight” and invoked Newt Gingrich’s criticism of him as a “big labor Republican.”

Santorum, campaigning in Grand Rapids, shot back that Romney was “a lightweight on conservative accomplishments, which happens to be more important than how much success and how much money you’ve made in business.”

A potential wild card that failed to make a difference in the end was the ability of Michigan Democrats to participate in the state’s open Republican primary. Romney’s campaign complained that state Democrats were working alongside Santorum to boost his candidacy. Exit polls showed that half of the Democrats who voted sided with Santorum, to 15 percent for Romney, but they made up only 9 percent of voters, up slightly from 7 percent in 2008.

The other GOP candidates were far behind the leaders. Gingrich did not contest Michigan; he spent the day campaigning in Georgia, which the former House speaker once represented in Congress. It is the biggest delegate prize on Super Tuesday.

At an election-night event on the West Georgia campus where he once taught, Gingrich carried on as though no contests were taking place, delivering a routine campaign speech.

Rep. Ron Paul, who was yet to win a state, spent election night in Virginia, another Super Tuesday state.

The day’s other contest, in Arizona, was vastly overshadowed. Romney’s considerable advantages — a base in the sizable Mormon community, the backing of the state GOP establishment, lingering support from his run four years ago — were too much for the other candidates, who effectively surrendered rather than fight and risk walking away empty handed.

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