Mitt, Michigan, and metaphor

    Maybe Mitt Romney will prevail tonight in Michigan, maybe he won’t. It almost doesn’t matter. Win or lose, he’s already wounded.A presidential candidate with a massive money and organizational advantage should not be clinging for dear life in his ancestral state, the state where he grew up, the state where the Romney brand sparks memories of his dad’s popular gubernatorial reign. And yet, Mitt is in danger of being derailed by a sanctimonious extremist who thinks he’s running for the papacy instead of the presidency.In other words, Mitt has already lost the expectations game – a game that his own team had insisted upon playing. For weeks the Romney people had touted Michigan as Mitt’s home turf, a safe place where he could cruise. That doesn’t appear to have been a wise decision. Because now, even if he wins big, people will say, “Of course he won big. It’s his home state.” And if he wins in a squeaker, people will say, “He should’ve won big. It’s his home state. A squeaker is almost as bad as losing.”And if he actually loses to Rick Santorum tonight…well…suffice it to say that your typical Republican will be doing his best approximation of Edvard Munch’s scream. The long knives will be out. The GOP’s circular firing squad will lock and load. And the Obama team leaders will pinch themselves and pass the popcorn.Most signs point to a photo finish. That itself is a rebuke to the home boy. Indeed, the Michigan primary has been a metaphor for the tenor and themes of the Republican race. Santorum, despite being outspent 2-1 in Michigan, has fought Romney to a virtual draw by heaving red meat at the sizable religious conservative base. He has been beating up Romney over the Massachusetts health reform law, and Romney has failed to effectively respond. Santorum has also veered ever further rightward (endorsing theocracy, dissing academia), but Romney has timidly refrained from challenging those statements, lest he lose more conservative voters.Meanwhile, Romney keeps stepping in it when he veers off script. He keeps saying things that reveal him to be who he truly is – a rich elitist who can’t relate to the average Joe.All politicians have to pander sometimes, but few do it as ineptly as Romney. One would expect him to suck up to Detroit; he surely needed to do so, after kissing off the auto industry in the disastrous ’08 guest column that continues to haunt him. But he did himself no favors last Friday by riffing, in the cavernously empty football stadium, about how his spouse “drives a couple of Cadillacs.” Memo to Mitt: Families in the 99 percent typically allot only one car per spouse.Then, on Sunday, his aides booked him for a visit to Daytona, where he would presumably demonstrate his regular-guy affinity for car racing and goad Michigan’s blue-collar voters into thinking that he is One of Them. But when asked whether he likes NASCAR, he riffed, “I have some great friends who are NASCAR owners.” Memo to Mitt: the bleacher guys tend not to mingle with the guys who count the money. No wonder Romney can’t close the sale with downscale Republicans. No wonder he has been bogged down in his own backyard, looking over his shoulder at Santorum with scant time to focus on Barack Obama.The Michigan metaphor also extends to the battle for delegates, which typically gets less press attention than the vote count. Before this year, Republicans used to stage “winner take all” primaries; the top vote-getter would get all the delegates statewide. Not so anymore. Under the new party rules, most states at this point in the calendar are awarding delegates through various proportional schemes. I’ll spare you all the math. Here’s the short version: Michigan is awarding its delegates by congressional district. Whoever wins a district gets two delegates. Romney seems likely to win seven districts, Santorum the other seven. Two more delegates are awarded statewide, but a tight finish would likely mean that each candidate would get one each. The upshot? Romney, regardless of whether he wins the statewide vote tally, is likely to stagger out of his ancestral state having split the 30 delegates with Santorum.And the long slog continues, with the terrier-like Santorum yapping at Romney’s pants cuffs. No wonder Republicans are increasingly unnerved. Congressman Peter King said on CNN this morning, “If Romney does not win Michigan, it creates real problems for his candidacy.” He said there is “whispering and mumbling” about Romney’s inability to shut this race down, “and the longer this goes on and his weaknesses show, the stronger President Obama becomes.”Peggy Noonan, the conservative columnist and ex-Reagan speechwriter, said it best over the weekend, in the midst of Mitt’s Michigan trudge: “The Republican candidates are making the president look better…It’s all an acrimonious blur. Good news, this may be the Republicans’ low point. Bad news, the low point may last until the convention, and through it. It’s all getting a little exhausting.”And, hey, it’s only February. Michigan is actually more than a metaphor. For Mitt, it’s a harbinger of the exhausting acrimony still to come.——-

    Meanwhile, in the news today, Santorum has flip flopped on vomit.

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    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

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