Romney coasts to victory in Arizona primary

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PHOENIX -- Mitt Romney notched a comfortable win in Arizona's Republican presidential primary Tuesday, a much-needed victory in a Western swing state as he heads into next week's 10-state Super Tuesday contests.

The Associated Press and television networks, relying on exit polls, called the Arizona race for Romney minutes after the voting ended, affirming early expectations that the former Massachusetts governor would carry a state in which the Republican establishment lined up behind him.

The exit polls revealed that Arizona voters were primarily motivated by economic concerns and the ability of their nominee to beat President Obama in the fall, areas in which Romney consistently bested his rivals. Voters were less focused on the social issues that helped fuel the recent surge by former Sen. Rick Santorum, the polls showed.

Romney did particularly well among those who voted early in Arizona, before Santorum's campaign surged. Romney, a Mormon, also benefited from pockets of Mormon voters around the state. Romney performed particularly well in Maricopa County, home to a wide swath of white-collar professionals in the Greater Phoenix area -- and the state's most populous jurisdiction.

With the victory, Romney claims all of Arizona's 29 convention delegates. In many ways, however, the Grand Canyon State's primary took a back seat to the same-day voting in Michigan, Romney's native state, where he faced a stronger challenge from Santorum.

Though he sailed to victory, there were some warning signs for Romney in the exit polls. Just half of those who voted for Romney said they firmly support him, highlighting a lack of commitment that reflects Romney's inability to seal the deal with conservatives who consider him too moderate politically.

"Do I love Romney? No way," said Walter Kingston, of Phoenix. "But he looks a lot better when you take a long look at the other candidates. I couldn't really justify going any other way."

Mesa's Benjamin Jones concluded: "Unless the Republicans generate some excitement -- and fast -- I don't see a change in occupancy at the White House."

Romney's strong showing in Arizona could bode well for Republicans in November, given that Obama has set his sights on the state. Obama is banking that the negative reaction to Arizona's toughest-in-the-nation immigration law will mobilize Hispanic voters for Democrats and make the traditionally conservative state more competitive in the fall.

Romney benefited from a decisive closing argument in the final days before the Arizona primary, as Santorum struggled during a nationally televised debate here. Romney effectively highlighted Santorum's long history of securing pork barrel funding while in the Senate and his ties to party elders unpopular with conservatives, including fellow former Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter.

Romney also benefited from the endorsement of Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, who remains popular with conservatives here, and the state's largest newspaper, the Arizona Republic, right before voters went to the polls.

The GOP race now shifts to 10 states that vote next Tuesday, including Southern states like Georgia and Tennessee, which likely favor Santorum or former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Ohio, like Michigan, could also produce a tight race next week. Only Romney and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas are on Virginia's ballot on Tuesday.

bhughes@washingtonexaminer.com

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