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First Thoughts: High stakes

Gerald Herbert / AP

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks at a campaign rally in Rockford, Mich., Monday, Feb. 27, 2012.

High stakes in tomorrow’s Michigan GOP primary… A rough last 72 hours for both Santorum and Romney: Santorum the culture warrior, and Romney steps in it -- again… Even Romney’s supporters are now making excuses for him… Brewer endorses Romney, while Santorum gets Secret Service protection… A tale of two VERY different national polls… And polling two Super Tuesday states.

*** High stakes: This is shaping up to be a significant week in the race for the GOP presidential nomination. If Mitt Romney wins tomorrow’s Michigan primary (even by a point), he will remain on track to becoming his party’s nominee. It still won’t be easy, he still will have a challenge in next week’s Super Tuesday contests, and he still continues to create problems for himself (see below). But a win in Michigan means he’ll probably be President Obama’s general-election opponent in November. (How formidable he’ll be against Obama is an entirely different question.) Yet a loss in Michigan would be DEVASTATING to his candidacy, given all of his advantages in the state and given all the mistakes Rick Santorum has made in the last several days. More importantly, a loss in Michigan would send the GOP establishment into a panic, would lay the groundwork for another candidacy, and would introduce chaos in the Republican race beyond anything we’ve seen yet. Bottom line: A lot is riding on tomorrow’s outcome in Michigan. And for what it’s worth, it does appear Romney is on the right track.

*** Santorum the culture warrior: As it turns out, both Romney and Santorum have had a rough last 72 hours heading into tomorrow’s primaries in Michigan and Arizona. We’ll start first with Santorum, who just can’t seem to stay on message and keeps finding himself entering the culture wars. The Washington Post: “In back-to-back speeches over the weekend, the candidate described President Obama as ‘a snob’ for focusing on the importance of a college education and disparaged the idea of a separation between church and state by attacking President John F. Kennedy, who made it a key point in his 1960 campaign.” We know these things won’t help him in a general-election contest. The only question is whether they hurt him with the GOP base he’s trying to court. These issues are catnip for the press corps, and Santorum loves to litigate them; in fact, while he claims to be the one wanting to focus on economic issues, nothing animates him more as a candidate than debating the culture wars. That passion comes through and may actually help him with SOME segments of the GOP electorate but it clearly turns off others.

Top Talkers: The Arizona and Michigan primaries are this Tuesday, and Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum are making their final pushes in the states. But will Romney's comment about knowing NASCAR team owners hurt him? Or what about Rick Santorum's suggestion that President Obama is a "snob" for wanting Americans to attend college?

*** Romney steps in it – again: As for Romney, his campaign was ridiculed for giving a speech to 1,200 folks in a 65,000-seat football stadium on Friday. Then, in that speech, the candidate admitted -- unprompted -- that his wife owns two Cadillacs in addition to the cars he owns. And then yesterday, he was asked at the Daytona 500 if he follows the sport. His answer, per the AP: "Not as closely as some of the most ardent fans. But I have some friends who are NASCAR team owners." Ouch. (In fairness, the NASCAR flub is not nearly as bad as the Cadillac one, but it does feed a bad narrative for him.) On FOX yesterday, Romney responded to criticism that comments like his “Cadillacs” one makes him seem out of touch. “If people think there’s something wrong with being successful in America, then they better vote for the other guy,” he said. “Because I’ve been extraordinarily successful, and I want to use that success and that know-how to help the American people.” But the problems his gaffes present go beyond his wealth. They 1) make it seem like he can’t relate to average Americans, and 2) underscore that his economic policies benefit the wealthy more than the middle class. In 1992 during a down economy, Bill Clinton was able to beat George H.W. Bush in large part because he convinced voters he could feel their pain. But could the same be said of Romney?

*** With friends like these… : Already, people are beginning to make excuses for Romney. Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) says that Romney has a “CEO” problem. "I think some people look at him as a CEO," McDonnell told reporters during the National Governors Association meeting in DC, per the L.A. Times. "People right now want to have somebody that truly just feels their pain and empathizes with what they're going through in this horrible, horrible economy." And on “Meet the Press” yesterday, conservative columnist Kathleen Parker put it another way: He’s a good doctor but with poor bedside manners. These two are either folks who have endorsed Romney or who are sympathetic to his candidacy, and this is the best they can come up with? We’ll make a final point about Romney: Every presidential candidate does what it takes to win, but the successful ones don’t LOOK like they’re doing it. But for Romney, there has been no subtlety to his ambition; he wants this in the worst way and he’s going about winning it in, well, “the worst way” he could be winning it (if he indeed ends up winning it).

*** Brewer endorses Romney, Santorum gets Secret Service protection: Over the weekend however, Romney did get this good news: He picked up an endorsement from Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) during her appearance on “Meet the Press” yesterday. “I have decided that I am going to publicly endorse Mitt Romney. I think he's the man that can carry the day,” Brewer said, per MSNBC.com’s Mike O’Brien. “I think Mitt is by far the person who can go in and win.” Meanwhile, NBC’s Kelly O’Donnell reported yesterday Santorum will get Secret Service protection starting today. 

*** A tale of two polls: There are two polls out today that tell VERY DIFFERENT stories. A Politico/GW/Battleground poll has Obama’s approval rating at 53%, and it shows him topping both Romney (53%-43%) and Santorum (53%-42%). But a new USA Today/Gallup survey has Obama and Romney tied at 47% each, and with Romney edging Obama in the swing states, 48%-46%. We’ll say this: Either Gallup is seeing something that no one else is seeing right now (NBC/WSJ, WaPo/ABC, NYT/CBS), or its methodology is understating Obama’s support and inflating the GOP’s. This isn’t the first time this cycle where Gallup has looked different from the other major national polls.

*** Polling the Super Tuesday states: Meanwhile, looking ahead to Super Tuesday, a new Vanderbilt/Princeton Survey poll shows Santorum leading Romney among registered GOP voters in Tennessee 33%-17%, with Paul at 13% and Gingrich just at 10%. That’s something to watch for next week: How does Santorum fare in the southern states (TN, OK, GA), and how does Gingrich fare? And in another Super Tuesday state -- Ohio -- a new Quinnipiac poll shows Santorum leading Romney among likely GOP voters, 36%-29%. Of course, all of these numbers could change depending on how the results of Michigan play tomorrow.

*** On the trail: Almost all of the action is Michigan: Romney holds rallies in Rockford, Albion, and (with special musical guest -- Kid Rock perhaps?) Royal Oak… Santorum hits Livonia, Lansing, and Kalamazoo… And Paul’s in Detroit, East Lansing, and Dearborn… And Gingrich campaigns in Tennessee, where he visits Nashville. 

Countdown to Arizona and Michigan primaries: 1 day
Countdown to Super Tuesday: 8 days
Countdown to Election Day: 253 days

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