Michigan Is a Must-Win ... For Rick Santorum

Winning in Michigan is at least as important to Santorum's campaign as it is to Romney's.

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According to conventional wisdom, it is former Gov. Mitt Romney who can't afford anything but a clear victory in the Michigan primary on February 28.

It is as close to a home state as he has. His father was an influential auto executive and served as governor there. And Romney's veneer of inevitability—his greatest weapon so far in this campaign—has taken some significant hits in recent days.

Much to the delight of the media, which finds itself a little short of stories between nominating contests, former Sen. Rick Santorum is surging in the polls, has eclipsed Romney in national surveys, and has gained in financial strength at the same time Romney has begun to encounter problems on the money front.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Mitt Romney]

Moreover, it turns out Romney might not have won last week's contest in Maine after all. And—his victory in the CPAC straw poll notwithstanding—he never has demonstrated the ability to get out of the doghouse with GOP voters, especially the party's sizable-and-growing conservative bloc.

In an effort to stop the slide, Romney has returned to the strategy that helped him defeat former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in Florida—a "Death Star" campaign of negative advertising designed to bury Santorum and obscure Romney's lack of a compelling central message.

If the polls are any indication, Michigan is certainly going to be an uphill battle for Romney. If he loses, it will undoubtedly be a major setback in his quest to be his party's standard-bearer. But the truth is, Michigan is not "Gettysburg" for Romney—he can survive a setback there. But a loss in Michigan very well could be the end for Santorum.

[See pictures of Rick Santorum]

To this point, Santorum's campaign has accumulated the second-most delegates despite the fact it runs on a shoestring budget, doesn't employ a pollster, and doesn't even have an official campaign headquarters.

But a loss in Michigan on February 28 would make things considerably more difficult for the former Pennsylvania senator. Santorum doesn't have the resources to compete in both Michigan and Arizona, whose primaries occur the same day. Arizona's 29 delegates are awarded on a winner-take-all basis, which means Romney could lose to Santorum in Michigan, whose 30 delegates are awarded proportionally, and still end up with substantially more delegates on the day. 

If Santorum loses in both Arizona and Michigan, his momentum could be slowed to the point he may not be able to scrape together the resources needed to compete on Super Tuesday (March 6) and beyond. Conversely, if he somehow could win both primaries, it could be the end of the road for Romney.

[Check out political cartoons about the 2012 GOP presidential hopefuls.]

Finally, the battle for the Republican nomination is not yet a two-man race. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich may be sinking quickly in the polls now, but he will compete in Michigan and probably will have the resources to be a factor on Super Tuesday. Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson has indicated he will provide another substantial cash infusion to Gingrich's Super PAC so he can compete on March 6, and so Gingrich can "push Rick Santorum from his position atop the latest national polls." Simply put, Adelson ultimately may be the one who rescues Romney if things get too out of hand.

The Michigan primary is certainly critical for Romney. And between now and February 28, anything can happen. But winning in Michigan is at least as important to Santorum's campaign as it is to Romney's.

  • See pictures of the 2012 GOP candidates
  • See a collection of political cartoons on Mitt Romney
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