Mitt Romney Edges Out Rick Santorum in Michigan Squeaker

Solid win in Arizona for Romney, but slender margin in home state shows weakness.

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A pugnacious Mitt Romney jumped back into the driver's seat as the likely Republican presidential nominee by winning both the Arizona and Michigan primary elections Tuesday.

With 73 percent of the vote counted, CNN projected that Romney had won Michigan, the most important of the two nominating contests, with 41 percent. Rick Santorum came in second with 37 percent. Ron Paul had 12 percent and Newt Gingrich 7. Thirty delegates will be divided proportionally but the allocation was unclear Tuesday night.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 GOP hopefuls.]

Despite his victory, Romney emerged from Michigan a damaged candidate. He struggled for victory even though Michigan is the state where he was born, where he was raised during his early years, and where his father George was governor.

But Romney couldn't win a majority there despite his massive advantages in fund-raising, organization and name identification. It's clear that he has yet to close the deal with conservative voters who don't believe he is truly one of them. The outcome was a sign that the GOP nominating struggle will last many more weeks.

Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, overwhelmingly won Arizona and all 29 of its delegates, according to television network projections. Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, finished a distant second, with Texas congressman Ron Paul and former House Speaker Gingrich lagging far behind.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Mitt Romney.]

In Michigan, Romney had trouble dealing with Santorum's central argument that the former governor is not a genuine conservative. What probably won the primary for Romney was his argument that he has the business expertise to turn the economy around. Forty-eight percent of voters said the economy was their top issue, according to exit polls, while 32 percent listed the budget deficit; 12 percent said illegal immigration, and 6 percent said abortion.

Romney strategists had predicted that his business-experience argument would have special resonance in Michigan, where unemployment is over 9 percent compared with about 8 percent nationally.

Romney has now won six of the eleven GOP nominating contests held so far and holds a solid lead in delegates who will determine the nominee. It will take 1,144 delegates to win the nomination.

The endgame in Michigan featured some of the most bitter and negative campaigning yet as Romney and Santorum battered each other day after day. Romney tried to undermine his main opponent's claim to be the true conservative by portraying Santorum as a Washington insider who compromised his principles in order to curry favor with GOP leaders. For his part, Santorum cast Romney as an elitist who fakes his conservatism to win votes and who is out of touch with Middle America.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Rick Santorum.]

Looking ahead, Romney signaled that he won't be responding to every Santorum riff on social issues but instead will return to a theme he is very comfortable with—that, unlike Santorum, he is the leader most able to strengthen the economy after many years as a venture capitalist. Romney told a rally in Rockford, Michigan Tueday, "It's time for him to really focus on the economy—and for you to all say, 'Okay, if the economy is going to be the issue we focus on, who has the experience to actually get this economy going again?"

But a big problem for the Republicans is that their nominating fight has become so negative that it's turning voters off to the GOP candidates while President Obama remains above the fray.

"In the absence of a competitive Democrat presidential primary, what voters are hearing are the negatives about each of the Republican candidates," says GOP pollster Bill McInturff. "To date, this has not only impacted the candidates' images negatively, but has also impacted the perception of the Republican party negatively."

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican party.]

A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 54 percent of voters disapprove what the GOP candidates have been saying, and 36 percent approve. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that 44 percent of voters have a negative image of the Republicans and 31 percent have a positive image, while 39 percent have a negative image of the Democrats and 38 percent have a positive image.