Romney boosted by tight victory in Michigan

Thu, Mar 1, 2012, 00:00

FOR ONCE, Mitt Romney found the right words.

“We didn’t win by a lot, but we won by enough and that’s all that counts,” he said of his victory in Michigan on Tuesday night.

“A week ago, the pundits and the pollsters, they were ready to count us out,” a palpably relieved Romney said of his near-death experience at the hands of Rick Santorum.

In the event, Romney won his home state by a margin of three percentage points, at 41 per cent to 38 per cent for Santorum.

In 2008, Romney defeated John McCain by nine percentage points in Michigan. So symbolic was the Michigan contest, that Romney’s 20-point victory over Santorum in Arizona was scarcely commented upon.

As they began campaigning for the March 6th “Super Tuesday” rematch yesterday, both candidates showed signs of having learned from their close fight in Michigan.

In a rare press conference on Tuesday afternoon, Romney admitted he “made mistakes” in Michigan. He declined to list them, but said they were his own fault, and not the fault of his staff.

US newspapers and websites publish lists of Romney’s Marie Antoinette-like comments, most recently that his wife drives “a couple of Cadillacs”, and that, although he doesn’t follow stock car racing, some of his friends own Nascar teams.

His inability to connect with ordinary people will continue to be a problem. Joe Hallett of the Columbus Dispatchnewspaper recalls a recent Republican dinner in Cuyahoga County, Ohio.

“It was awful; a succession of cliches,” says Hallett, who has interviewed Romney twice and believes he has a “genuineness” that doesn’t come out. “I’ve never seen somebody who steps so much on his tongue.”

Romney’s opposition to the Obama administration’s bailout of the automobile industry will also hurt him in Ohio, the country’s second car-maker after Michigan, especially in the general election.

Michigan was a significant victory for Romney, yet his speech was filled with the usual snide remarks about Barack Obama, and platitudes about the promise of the future, values and the American dream. He nonetheless seems to have taken on board the need for a shorter, sharper message.

“More jobs, less debt and smaller government. You’re going to hear that day in and day out,” Romney said. “More jobs, less debt and smaller government.”

Romney’s teleprompted addresses still lag behind Santorum’s more graphic and spontaneous language.

“We have a government that is crushing us every single day with more taxes, more regulations and the idea that they know better than you how to run your life,” the former senator from Pennsylvania railed on Tuesday night.

But Santorum also comes to Ohio carrying the burdens of recent errors. “Santorum really shot himself in the foot in Michigan,” Hallett says. “It was ripe for the taking. He could have come into Ohio with momentum, but he got caught in the weeds, calling Barack Obama a snob about education, going on about contraception.”

Opinion polls show a strong aversion among women voters to Santorum, who has criticised “radical feminists” for deterring women from staying home to raise children, and who opposes contraception, abortion and women in combat.

He tried to recalibrate that message in his concession speech on Tuesday night, talking about his 93-year-old mother who completed a university degree in the 1930s, then earned a higher salary than her husband while she worked full-time while raising her children.

Ohio is a bellwether and a swing state which has proven uncannily accurate in voting for 25 of 27 presidents over the past 98 years. It’s seen as the most important of 10 contests next Tuesday.

Romney and his Restore our Future “super pac” have already spent some $3 million on television advertising here, compared to $528,000 for Santorum.

Ohio is also emblematic of the economic woes that 54 per cent of Michigan voters said mattered most to them.

Between 2005 and 2011, the state lost 443,000 jobs, of which 170,000 in manufacturing.

Ohio’s per capita income is $4,000 below the national average.

One in seven of its inhabitants relies on food stamps, and the delivery of one in three infants is paid for by Medicaid, the federal programme for the poor.

Marie Antoinette comments about firing people and Cadillacs will not go down well in Ohio, but Romney’s concentration on the economy will be a plus for him.

“The best thing that Mitt Romney has going for him here is that he’s a Massachusetts Republican,” says Hallett. “That means to Ohioans that he’s a moderate.”

Alluding to the former speaker of the House, Hallett adds: “Newt Gingrich amazes me. They used to demonise liberals. Now they demonise moderates – that’s what Ohioans are.”

A Quinnipiac poll of Ohio Republicans published this week seemed contradictory.

On the one hand, 40 per cent said Romney had the best chance of beating Obama, compared to 25 per cent for Santorum.

On the other hand, Santorum was favoured by 36 per cent to 29 per cent for Romney.

“Whenever I talk to Republicans, their main objective is defeating Obama,” Hallett says.

“Yet, in this poll, they are rejecting the candidate who they say can beat Obama. I don’t know how to explain that other than that they just don’t like Mitt Romney.”

Paul Beck, professor of political science at Ohio State University, predicts the outcome of Super Tuesday as follows: Ohio, Massachusetts, Vermont and Virginia for Romney; Tennessee for Romney or Gingrich; Georgia for Romney or Santorum; Oklahoma – the most Christian conservative state – for Santorum.

Ron Paul is expected to do well in Idaho, Alaska and North Dakota, states with small populations who hold non-binding caucuses rather than primaries.

So Romney should chalk up approximately half of the 10 Super Tuesday states.

“It doesn’t sound great,” Beck admits. Several other southern states – unfavourable terrain for Romney – will also vote in March.

But the weak frontrunner should have an easier ride in big, delegate-rich states such as Illinois, New York and California.