Romney, Santorum neck and neck in Michigan

Rick Santorum
Rick Santorum
Rick Santorum

Mitt Romney’s narrow but campaign-saving primary victory in Michigan lost some of its luster when the final outcome showed that his top rival, Rick Santorum, still won half of the state’s delegates, muddying the race ahead of 10 key state contests next Tuesday.

A win in Michigan was crucial for Romney, who was born there and whose father was governor of the state, to affirm his contention that he is his party’s best choice to defeat Democratic President Barack Obama in November.

He overcame the religious conservative Santorum by a slim margin – 41 percent to 38 percent – in the vote Tuesday by sticking to his core and mainstream Republican message of fixing the economy and reducing unemployment in a country still recovering from the worst recession in decades.

Romney is favored by much of the Republican establishment, and enjoys more campaign funds and a stronger organization than his primary rivals. But Santorum has electrified the party’s conservative base, which trusts his views on social issues such as abortion and gay rights, and considers Romney too moderate and inconsistent.

Santorum remains on solid ground heading into Super Tuesday, a day next week when 419 delegates are up for grabs in 10 states. The day could go a long way in determining who will win the state-by-state race for delegates that yields the party’s nomination at its national convention in August.

Santorum is leading the polls in Ohio, possibly the most important contest on Super Tuesday. It is a big industrial state with 8.1 percent unemployment, 63 convention delegates at stake and a long history as a battleground in general election campaigns. Santorum also is keeping an eye on two other big prizes among the 10 Super Tuesday states: Oklahoma and Tennessee.

Romney is all but assured of victories in at least two of next Tuesday’s states – Massachusetts, where he was governor and faces little or no competition in the primary, and Virginia, where neither former House speaker Newt Gingrich nor Santorum qualified for the ballot. Those two contests offer 84 delegates combined.

News that Santorum’s narrow loss in Michigan would yield him as many delegates as the winner – 15 each – enabled him to label the results a success on Romney’s home turf, putting some wind in his sails ahead of the big contests next week.

The other two candidates in the race, Gingrich and Texas Rep. Ron Paul, did not campaign in Michigan and got no delegates.

“We had a much better night in Michigan than maybe was first reported. This was a really great race to go into, in a sense, the belly of the beast, the hometown of my chief rival here in the Republican primary,” Santorum said Wednesday during a campaign stop in Tennessee.

Romney was campaigning in Ohio, where he kept on the economy, promising “more jobs, less debt and smaller government” if he’s elected in November. Romney was headed next for North Dakota, which holds caucuses Tuesday.

Gingrich and Paul made little effort in either of Tuesday’s contests in Michigan or Arizona, focusing instead on Super Tuesday. Gingrich campaigned in Georgia, the state he represented in the House of Representatives for 20 years. Paul appears to be contesting Romney in Vermont, which carries 17 delegates.

In the Associated Press tally, Romney now has 167 delegates, including all of Arizona’s 29 delegates, which he won easily on Tuesday in the day’s second race. Santorum has 87, Gingrich has 32 and Paul has 19.

It will take 1,144 delegates to win the Republican nomination for president.

The next vote happens Saturday, when Washington state holds its caucuses.