DETROIT — Mitt Romney narrowly won Michigan’s Republican presidential primary Tuesday, dodging a what would have been devastating loss in his native state, but failing to vanquish fears that he can’t win over the party’s conservative base.
Romney eked out a victory over former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, according to unofficial returns. And while Romney’s margin of victory was narrower than expected for a man who was born and raised in Michigan and whose father was once governor here, the victory capped a night in which Romney also sailed to an easy victory in Arizona’s primary.
The Michigan win was nonetheless a huge relief for the Romney campaign as he heads into the critical March 6 Super Tuesday primary with a huge lead in the race to collect convention delegates.
“We didn’t win by a lot but we won by enough,” Romney roared to a happy crowd outside of Detroit, “and that’s all that counts.”
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas finished far behind Romney and Santorum, according to unofficial returns.
Romney recovered in Michigan after losing a big lead to Santorum earlier this month. Two weeks ago, Santorum was ahead of Romney in Michigan by 15 points, capitalizing on his victories in Missouri, Minnesota and Colorado.
Santorum fought hard to stay ahead, casting himself to Michigan voters as the more conservative candidate whose humble upbringing outside Pittsburgh made him more of a kindred spirit to the state’s blue-collar voters than the affluent Romney.
But Romney was far better organized and financed and able to sell himself as the candidate with the experience and skills needed to turn around the slumping economy.
For Santorum, the near-win on Romney’s native turf is likely to fuel his surging candidacy, which just weeks ago was wallowing at the bottom of the polls.
When Santorum addressed an enthusiastic throng of supporters in Grand Rapids Tuesday, it sounded more like a victory speech.
“We came into the backyard of one of my opponents in a race that they said to just ignore, you really have no chance here,” Santorum told the crowd. “The people of Michigan looked into the hearts of the candidates and all I have to say is, I love you back.”
Santorum tried to best Romney in Michigan by taking advantage of the open primary rules. He wooed union Democrats to vote in the Republican primary, using automated phone calls to voters that highlighted “Massachusetts Mitt” Romney’s opposition to the federal auto industry bailout.
“That was a slap in the face to every Michigan worker and we are not going to let Romney get away with it,” said the automated caller.
Later in the day, Romney criticized Santorum what he called “a terrible dirty trick.”
Santorum returned fire, calling Romney a whining bully.
By the end of the night, however, the two stopped attacking each other. Santorum phoned Romney to concede before taking the stage in Grand Rapids and never once mentioned his opponent by name.
Romney didn’t mention Santorum by name either, but the two candidates will likely be back at each other’s throats as soon as Wednesday, when intensive campaigning begins in neighboring Ohio, one of the most important Super Tuesday states.
According to the latest Real Clear Politics average, Santorum leads Romney there by more than 8 percentage points.