Mitt Romney did what he needed to do on Tuesday – he coasted to victory in Arizona and averted embarrassment by winning the popular vote in his boyhood home of Michigan, where his father served as governor.
It’s important not to overstate or understate the importance of these victories. On the one hand, Romney should have won both states easily, and the fact that it wasn’t clear going into tonight’s race that he’d win Michigan reinforces doubts about the strength of his candidacy going into the general election. But on the other hand, he did win in both states, and because Arizona is winner take all, he’ll clearly come away with more delegates tonight. (This even though Santorum may end up winning more delegates in Michigan despite losing the popular vote, because they’re divided by Congressional district in the state). What could be potentially troubling for Rick Santorum is that even though polls had shown him ahead earlier this month, he ended up losing Republicans in the state by 10 points. That trend may suggest that Romney’s aggressive attacks on Santorum’s record are starting to pay dividends.
But let’s not get too carried away. What we’ve learned in the primaries up until this point is that each contest tends to be an independent event, with the concept of momentum not meaning as much as it usually does. This was the case when Santorum won Iowa only to fade for several weeks; when Romney won New Hampshire and then fizzled as Newt Gingrich came back from the dead in South Carolina; and when Gingrich was riding high heading into Florida, only to go down in flames. Then Santorum, having disappeared, came back to pull off the hat trick in Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado.
There’s a good case to be made that Santorum fought hard on Romney’s home turf, and could win the delegate-rich Super Tuesday states of Georgia, Ohio, Oklahoma and Tennessee. That would make it harder for Romney to emerge as the presumed nominee anytime soon.
So to sum up, tonight Romney reasserted his frontrunner status, but still remains vulnerable in upcoming primaries. And even if he wins the nomination, bigger questions remain about how he’ll compete against a tougher, better-funded opponent in President Obama.