Arizona is an insurance policy for Romney in case Santorum beats him in Michigan. Romney is the son of the former three-time governor of Michigan, George Romney, and grew up there. A loss, if Michigan were the only battle on Tuesday night, would be embarrassing. But if Romney loses narrowly in Michigan, and wins decisively in Arizona, the split result would dull any momentum Santorum needs to carry over to Super Tuesday the following week.
On the other hand, if Romney ekes out a win in Michigan, which would not be a great surprise (Silver rates the race close to 50-50), he could have two wins and momentum going into Super Tuesday. Romney has had the appearance of momentum before — after what seemed to be an 8-vote win in Iowa, a decisive win in New Hampshire, a huge win over Gingrich in Florida, and then a solid win in Nevada. Each time Romney has appeared to be in range of closing out the race he has been thrown back — first by Gingrich in South Carolina and then by Santorum in Minnesota, Colorado, and Missouri.
Romney’s problems run deeper than a possible loss in Michigan. In Thursday’s Rasmussen survey, he trails Obama by 7 points in a head-to-head matchup, and his numbers have deteriorated over the last month. These are blowout numbers on the national level. McCain lost the popular vote to Obama by 7.2% in 2008, and won only 173 Electoral College votes. Rasmussen’s tracking of Santorum versus Obama is only a bit better.
There is growing evidence that the GOP fight has alienated voters, including many independents, and swung the race decisively towards Barack Obama. As the economy shows signs of life, Obama’s greatest vulnerability in his re-election run becomes smaller. Conservative columnist George Will thinks both Romney and Santorum would make very weak general election candidates versus Obama.
The sliding poll numbers versus Obama for all the remaining GOP contenders have continued to keep alive the possibility of a late entrant to the race, or a deadlocked convention in Tampa in August, with a new nominee emerging (take your pick — Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, Bob McDonnell). Karl Rove says this is fantasy.
Ann Coulter, long a mainstay of the right, has made a strong case for Romney and pointed out the hypocrisy of talk radio hosts who backed him in 2008 versus Giuliani, McCain, and Huckabee, but have bashed him this year as an impure conservative. Among evangelical Christians, there is some evidence of bigotry towards Romney for his Mormon religion.
In any case, even if Romney sweeps both Michigan and Arizona on Tuesday, the nominating fight is likely to continue for some time. Romney and his superPAC backers will need to reload financially for him to maintain his spending advantage, which was very helpful in weakening Gingrich in Iowa and Florida. More important, Romney will need to make a far better case for why voters should support him against Obama.
Beating Gingrich and Santorum is one thing. Beating Obama is a far higher hurdle.