BY JIM MALONE – It’s getting to be crunch time in the Republican Party presidential nomination battle. What happens in Tuesday’s primary elections in Michigan and Arizona will have a big impact on the race no matter what, but it won’t likely be determinative.
It will serve to set up the Super Tuesday primaries and caucuses on March 6th, which to some extent already loom as a likely split decision among George Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich as they battle in 10 different states for delegates.
Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney Rick Santorum argue at a Republican presidential debate Feb. 22, 2012, in Mesa, Ariz. (AP)
The Michigan primary on Feb. 28th is important because it’s Romney’s home state. A loss there to Santorum would be embarrassing, but wouldn’t knock him out of the race. Romney is polling well in Arizona, the other state to vote on Tuesday. So at worst, the Romney campaign is expecting a split decision. Not great, but not the end of the world either.
The public opinion polls show a close race in Michigan between Romney and Santorum. Santorum has been ahead in some polls but the latest momentum seems to be with Romney, perhaps because yet another barrage of negative ads is bombarding Michigan voters with Santorum squarely in the gun sights.
At this point even a narrow Romney win in Michigan would give him a boost, but it wouldn’t finish off Santorum. Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul remain in the game but are banking on doing better in some of the contests down the line. Gingrich is hoping for a revival on Super Tuesday, March 6th, when his home state of Georgia votes along with nine other states. He is also hoping to do well in Tennessee and Oklahoma, which vote on the same day.
In the only debate between now and Super Tuesday, Romney had a pretty good go at Santorum the other night and put him on the defensive at several points during the evening. The thrust of the attacks was that Santorum claims to be a consistent conservative, but that while he was in Congress — both in the Senate and before that in the House of Representatives — he didn’t always vote that way.
That’s one of the challenges of having a congressional record and then taking it into a presidential campaign. It can be picked apart by your rivals, not only in debates but in TV attack ads funded either by your opponents or the wealthy, unregulated so-called super PACs standing behind them. Bob Dole ran into this problem when he ran for president in 1996 as his lengthy and at times inconsistent voting record came into question, first by his Republican rivals, then by President Bill Clinton.
By the way, as of now there are no more Republican debates scheduled to which any of the major contenders have committed. It will be interesting to see what happens now since the debates had such a huge impact both this year and last on weeding out the Republican field and allowing candidates in trouble, like Gingrich, to stay in the race.
Whatever happens this coming Tuesday, will set the stage for Super Tuesday. The 10 contests on that one day do offer opportunities for most of the candidates to stake a claim to delegates and at least a bit of momentum somewhere on that 10-state map.
Super Tuesday Stakes Preview
The big prize on March 6th will be Ohio, which also happens to be a crucial swing state in the general election. Ohio is always crucial for Republicans in national elections. No Republican has ever been elected president without winning Ohio in the general election.
Ohio represents Santorum’s best shot at a breakout win that could change the dynamic of the Republican race. It is also a crucial test for Romney, who will no doubt rely on the Republican establishment in the state to help him carry the vote.
Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich at a debate watching party, Feb. 22, 2012 in Scottsdale, Ariz. (AP)
Gingrich also wants to play in Ohio, but first he has to make sure that he wins his home state of Georgia. A Gingrich loss in Georgia would probably undermine any hope he has of staying in the race for the long term.
As for the other states on Super Tuesday, there is something for everyone, as the saying goes.
Romney can look to Massachusetts, where he was governor, and to Vermont, another New England state, where his Republican brand remains fairly popular. Gingrich is focused on Georgia and hoping his popularity will spread to neighboring Tennessee and maybe Oklahoma further out west. None of these three states would seem to prime for Romney. Ron Paul may look for breakthroughs in Alaska and North Dakota, where he has done some campaigning.
One other state on Super Tuesday is likely to go to Romney by default and that is Virginia. Only Romney and Paul, among active candidates, will appear on the Virginia primary ballot because the others failed to get enough petition signatures needed to get their names on the ballot. So Romney expects an easy victory there.
No matter what happens Super Tuesday, the result is likely to be some sort of split decision. The main question is whether Gingrich will figure much in that decision — and if not, where does he go from there.
After a stint in the Peace Corps in Swaziland, Jim joined VOA in 1983 as a reporter and anchor on English broadcasts to Africa. He served as East Africa correspondent, then covered Congress in the early 1990′s. Since 1995, Jim has served as VOA national correspondent responsible for coverage of U.S. politics, elections, the Supreme Court and Justice Department. Jim has been involved in VOA’s election coverage since the 1984 presidential campaign and has co-anchored live VOA broadcasts of numerous national political conventions, candidate debates and election night coverage.