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First Thoughts: Decision Day in Michigan (and Arizona)

Decision Day in Michigan (and Arizona, too)… What’s riding on tonight’s Michigan race: It will determine if Romney limps to the nomination or if all hell breaks loose… Why didn’t Romney go after Santorum’s controversial comments (on college and JFK)?... A combined 59 delegates are up for grabs in AZ and MI… Final polls close in both states at 9:00 pm ET… Team Romney outspends Team Santorum in Michigan by 2-to-1 margin… And Adelson cuts another check.

Laura Segall / Reuters

Republican presidential candidates former Senator Rick Santorum and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney smile before the start of the Republican presidential candidates debate in Mesa, Arizona, February 22, 2012.

*** Decision Day in Michigan (and Arizona): Four weeks ago, after Mitt Romney’s decisive victory in Florida, few would have predicted that today’s primary in Michigan -- a state where Romney grew up, where his father served as governor, where he launched his ’08 presidential campaign -- would become such a consequential contest. Now? There’s so much riding on today’s Republican presidential primary there. Tonight will largely decide if Romney limps to the nomination or if all hell breaks loose inside the GOP. There's no overstating the consequences of a Romney loss tonight: There won’t just be handwringing by the establishment, but there will be financial and staffing consequences, too. Given those stakes, Romney yesterday made his final pitch to Michigan voters with a special appearance by Kid Rock. Rick Santorum’s campaign began running robo-calls urging Democrats to vote for Santorum and against Romney. And some Democrats are doing the same to fellow party members in this essentially open primary. The polling, including last week’s NBC/Marist survey, showed the race tight, with maybe a finger on the scale in Romney’s direction. Buckle your seatbelts; tonight could be quite a ride.

*** Why didn’t Romney go after Santorum’s controversial comments? If Santorum ends up pulling off the upset in Michigan -- after all the controversial comments he’s made in the past few days (on college education, JFK’s 1960 speech on the separation between church and state) -- you have to wonder if the Romney campaign made a mistake by not attacking those comments. Indeed, you could argue that what Romney HASN’T said might be as significant as what Santorum HAS. David Brooks -- who barely mentions Romney in his column today, but whose point seems to be all about him -- seems to suggest the same. “All across the nation, there are mainstream Republicans lamenting how the party has grown more and more insular, more and more rigid. This year, they have an excellent chance to defeat President Obama, yet the wingers have trashed the party’s reputation by swinging from one embarrassing and unelectable option to the next: Bachmann, Trump, Cain, Perry, Gingrich, Santorum. But where have these party leaders been over the past five years, when all the forces that distort the G.O.P. were metastasizing?”

*** Trying not to offend: It's truly astonishing that Romney is acting as if he's so concerned about alienating some conservatives that he won't even challenge Santorum on the "snob" comments regarding college education. And if Romney is that fearful about standing up to Santorum, what does that say about his personal leadership qualities? As many folks have remarked over the last few days, the lack of agility of Romney as a candidate has been on full display these last 72 hours. His primary campaign has been about not offending anyone on the right. And if Romney loses tonight, he'll have that strategy to thank. 

*** Combined 59 delegates up for grabs tonight: Michigan isn’t the only contest tonight. Arizona is also holding its primary, although the polling there has Romney with a sizable lead in the state. Per NBC’s John Bailey, Michigan will send 30 delegates to the GOP convention. (The state initially had 59 delegates, but the RNC penalized them for violating party rules by going before March 6.) Twenty-eight of the 30 delegates are awarded as winner-take-all based on the vote in each congressional district, and the two other delegates are awarded proportionally based on the statewide vote total (but a candidate must receive at least 15% to be eligible). In Arizona, Bailey adds, 29 delegates are at stake. (The state originally had 58 delegates, but the RNC stripped half the delegation for the same rule violation as Michigan.) Arizona’s contest is pure winner-take-all, with all of the state’s 29 delegates going to the winner of the statewide vote.

"Michigan is just known for its great upsets," says NBC News' Chuck Todd. "George Wallace in '72, Ted Kennedy defeating Carter here. You had Jesse Jackson winning here, upsetting Michael Dukakis." So what will happen in the state's Tuesday primary? Will Santorum deliver the great upset?

*** Breaking down Michigan: In Michigan four years ago, turnout was just less than 870,000 (869,169 to be exact). The counties with the most Republicans are Oakland (133,431), Wayne (99,370), and Macomb (77,195). Wayne County includes most of Detroit; Oakland County includes the more affluent suburbs north of the city; and Macomb County, home of the “Reagan Democrats,” includes the more blue-collar areas northeast of town. Romney won Michigan last cycle, with 39% of the vote, a nine-point victory over eventual nominee John McCain. Three of Romney’s four strongest counties were Oakland, Macomb, and Wayne -- where he won by 21, 20, and 18 percentage points, respectively. Michigan does not have early voting, but it does allow voters to cast ballots absentee if they give an approved excuse. The primary is open; any registered voter can vote in either primary, but not both. Most of Michigan’s polling places close at 8:00 pm ET, but the four counties in the Central Time Zone close at 9:00 pm ET, and so 9:00 pm ET would be the earliest the networks could call this race.

*** Breaking down Arizona: In 2008, per NBC’s Bailey, about 541,000 Arizona Republicans turned out (541,035 to be exact). Favorite son John McCain won the state with 47% of the vote. Mitt Romney was second with 35%. The two largest counties in Arizona are Maricopa (Phoenix) and Pima (Tucson). Together they accounted for nearly 80% of Arizona GOP voters last cycle. Arizona has early voting, which took place from Feb. 2 through last Friday. Arizona’s primary is closed to registered party members, so only registered Republicans can vote today. Polls close at 9:00 pm ET.

*** Team Romney outspends Team Santorum in Michigan by 2-to-1 margin: In Michigan, Romney and his allies outspent Santorum and his allies by a 2-to-1 margin, $4.1 million vs. $2.1 million. Here are the final ad-spending numbers: Restore Our Future (pro-Romney Super PAC) $2.4 million; Romney campaign $1.7 million; Red, White, and Blue Fund (pro-Santorum Super PAC) $1.2 million, Santorum campaign $897,000; and Paul $50,000. In Arizona, meanwhile, Restore Our Future spent $610,000; Winning Our Future (pro-Gingrich Super PAC) spent $62,000; and Santorum spent $60,000.

*** Adelson cuts another check: Speaking of spending and Super PACs, the Washington Post reports that Sheldon Adelson will be writing another HEFTY check to the pro-Gingrich group Winning Our Future. “An independent group supporting Newt Gingrich has received another ‘substantial’ contribution from billionaire casino owner Sheldon Adelson and will launch TV ads in seven states this week, a source close to the group confirmed Monday. The source, who requested anonymity to speak freely, did not confirm the amount of the contribution but called it substantial and at least on par with two $5 million donations Adelson and his family have given previously.”

*** On the trail, per NBC’s Adam Perez: Santorum stumps in Michigan before heading to a rally in Perrysburg, OH at 11:30 am ET… And Gingrich holds three rallies in Georgia.

Countdown to Super Tuesday: 7 days
Countdown to Election Day: 252 days

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