Mitt Romney scored a hard-fought primary triumph in his native state of Michigan and won in Arizona early Wednesday, dealing a blow to his chief Republican rival Rick Santorum and gaining precious momentum ahead of a crucial set of contests next week.
Romney’s victories were the latest twist in a turbulent Republican primary campaign, and could cement his status as his party’s front-runner to challenge President Barack Obama in the November presidential election. But he fell short of landing the knock-out punch needed to stop his top opponent in his tracks.
Romney is viewed as the candidate best positioned to beat Obama, and he has the backing of much of the Republican establishment. But Santorum has captured the heart of the party’s conservative base, which has no doubt about the authenticity of his views on social issues such as abortion and considers Romney too moderate.
“We didn’t win by a lot but we won by enough, and that’s all that counts,” Romney told cheering supporters in Michigan on Tuesday night. The double victories injected his campaign with new energy ahead of the 10-state contest known as Super Tuesday.
Santorum had hoped for a win in Michigan following his victories earlier this month in Minnesota, Colorado and Missouri. He told supporters late Tuesday that a month ago “they didn’t know who we are, but they do now.” He was already campaigning in Ohio, one of next week's largest prizes, when the verdict came in from Michigan, and vowed to stay the conservative course he has set.
With 87 percent of Michigan’s precincts reporting, Romney had 41 percent to Santorum's 38 percent. Texas Rep. Ron Paul was in third place with 12 percent, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was bringing up the rear with 7 percent.
In Arizona with 62 percent of precincts reporting, Romney was leading with 48 percent to Santorum’s 26 percent. Gingrich was third with 16 percent and Paul came in last with 8 percent.
Romney’s victory in Arizona had been expected. So much so, that his opponents spent little time and no money campaigning there.
Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts and ex-CEO of a private equity firm, has campaigned for the most part by emphasizing his business acumen at a time when the U.S. economy is struggling and unemployment remains high.
But the lengthening Republican nomination struggle has coincided with a rise in Obama’s prospects for a new term. A survey released during the day showed consumer confidence at the highest level in a year, and other polls show an increase in Americans saying they believe the country is on the right track.
The president is unopposed for the Democratic nomination, and timed an appearance before members of the United Auto Workers union in Washington for the same day as the Michigan primary.
He attacked Republican candidates for saying that union members profited from the taxpayer-paid rescue of the auto industry in 2008-9, calling the assertions a “load of you know what.”
To seal the nomination a candidate must accumulate the backing of 1,144 delegates to win the party nomination at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, in late August.
Romney picked up all 29 delegates at stake in Arizona to raise his total to 152 delegates, according to the AP's count, compared to 72 for Santorum, 32 for Gingrich and 19 for Paul. Michigan’s 30 delegates were to be distributed proportionally.