Winning ugly, slogging ahead

    Mitt Romney looked feverishly dazed and delighted, like a guy who had just landed in a firefighters’ safety net after plummeting from the top of a 10-story building.”What a night!” he gawped. Thank you, Michigan! The trees were the right height, after all!

    Michigan voters indeed saved him at the finish line from the ultimate humiliation – a primary defeat in his native state, a defeat that would’ve propelled Republican leaders into angst overdrive. Nevertheless – and this is still his biggest problem – he didn’t dazzle. He didn’t dispel the chronic restiveness in the party ranks. With enormous money, organizational, and brand name advantages in his own backyard, he bested Rick Santorum by only three percentage points. Heck, four years ago, facing off in Michigan against the more estimable John McCain, he won by nine percentage points. In 2008, he garnered 20 of Michigan’s 30 delegates; this time, he’ll be lucky to get 15.Granted, “a win is a win.” That has been the Mitt team mantra these past 12 hours. That was also the Bob Dole mantra in 1996 every time he won underwhelmingly, on route to lackluster defeat at the hands of a Democratic incumbent president.Once again, the exit polls reveal Romney’s abiding vulnerabilities. He still hasn’t closed the sale with the denizens of the Republican right, the diehards whose support will be crucial in November. Thirty percent of the Michigan primary electorate described itself as “very conservative” – and they favored Santorum over Romney by 14 points (50-36). Forty two percent of the voters were born-again or evangelical Christians – and they favored Santorum over Romney by 18 points (51-33).In other bad harbingers for a general election, Romney managed to lose low-income and modest-income voters. He won only one income bracket: the voters who make more than $100,000 a year. Shocking, I know. Clearly, his ambition to be the candidate of the middle class has yet to be fulfilled. He might want to work on that, if he hopes to be a competitive nominee in the fall.Ditto young people. Romney was so unpopular yesterday among 18-to-29 Michigan voters that he finished third in that age bracket, far behind the winner…Ron Paul.So while Romney did manage to ward off disaster last night – with a strong assist from Santorum, whose extremist rants may have rightly persuaded late-deciding voters that the guy isn’t fit for higher office – there is zero evidence that Mitt’s Michigan win, along with his Arizona win, will trigger Mittmentum next week on Super Tuesday. Because if this uniquely nutty Republican race has taught us anything, it’s that any given victory is typically followed by a spasm of buyer’s remorse.After Romney won New Hampshire, the conventional wisdom decreed the race virtually over. But then came Newt Gingrich’s newtron bomb in South Carolina. And after Romney won Florida, the race was again deemed virtually over. But then came Santorum’s sweep in Missouri, Minnesota, and Colorado. So let’s hold the applause for Romney this time, and look instead at the daunting gauntlet he’ll run on Super Tuesday. Ten states are on tap March 6, and more defeats are virtually inevitable. He’ll surely win Massachusetts (another of his home states), Vermont, and Virginia (the latter, because only he and Ron Paul are on the ballot). But elsewhere, the terrain is more treacherous.Santorum appears well positioned to beat Romney in Tennessee (Romney has yet to demonstrate that he can galvanize conservatives down in Dixie), and Santorum could do the same in Oklahoma. Georgia looks bad for Romney as well, because that’s where home boy Newt Gingrich is likely to dominate. Alaska, North Dakota, and Idaho have caucuses, and evangelical Christians – Santorum fans – often turn out heavily for caucuses. (I never thought this race would get to the point where I’d pay attention to Idaho.)And then there’s the biggest March 6 prize – not in delegates, but in political importance. That would be Ohio.Ohio’s Republican primary electorate is similar to Michigan’s – lots of downscale workers; a huge evangelical Christian cohort, perhaps 40 percent of all likely voters – and this time Romney won’t have the home field advantage. And Santorum has been waxing Romney in the Ohio polls. But we shall see whether that poll lead holds up. Santorum over the next six days will be savaged with impunity in TV ads bankrolled by Romney’s Super PAC. (Mitt wins ugly, by convincing voters that the other guy – Rick Perry, Newt, Santorum, whoever – is way worse than he is.) Indeed, if Romney can leverage his 6-1 financial advantage over Santorum, if he can tout his new twin wins and convince undecided Ohioans that he is surely Inevitable, and if he can benefit anew from Santorum’s zealous gnawing of red meat, Ohio could still wind up as a Mitt win.But would an Ohio triumph quell the Republican hand-wringing about Romney? Not likely. Super Tuesday looks to be a split decision, and the slog toward the summer convention will simply move on to other venues. Mississippi and Alabama vote in mid-March, in case you didn’t know. (You didn’t. Why would you? Who would’ve thought those states would matter?). Mitt still needs to somehow connect with the resistant conservatives who can smell a country-club moderate a mile off. Indeed, in the days ahead, if he lets slip a few more verbal gems about his money and his Cadillacs and his rich friends, we’ll see Republican leaders up on the rooftops, contemplating a plummet.——-Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

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