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First Thoughts: Winning ugly

Romney wins ugly in Michigan… But that win silences the talk about a white knight riding to the GOP’s rescue… February took a toll on Romney… Did Santorum lose Michigan more than Romney winning it?... On to Super Tuesday… And Snowe’s retirement gives Democrats a better than 50%-50% chance of holding the Senate in November.

Mark Blinch / Reuters

Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney addresses supporters at his Michigan primary night rally in Novi, Michigan, February 28, 2012.

*** Winning ugly: With so much riding on last night's outcome in Michigan, Mitt Romney got exactly what he needed to avoid political disaster -- a win. After all, a win is a win, and Romney pocketed two of them with a blow-out victory in Arizona (47%-27% over Rick Santorum) and a nail-biter in Michigan (41%-38%). But it wasn’t pretty for the former Massachusetts governor in the state where he grew up, where his father had served as governor, and where he won by nine percentage points in 2008. If this were college football, last night’s Michigan contest was akin to the No.2-ranked team in the country winning on a last-second field goal (the score 41-38) against an unranked opponent at home, on Homecoming. That No. 2 team survives, gets to regroup, and keeps its championship hopes alive. But the way it won -- UGLY -- despite all of its advantages raises doubts among the sports writers and even fans about its chances against the No. 1 team. Then again, the goal is to make it to the BCS game and see what happens. And Romney essentially did that by winning in Michigan last night.

*** But that win silences the talk about a white knight riding to the rescue: The biggest impact of Romney’s narrow victory in Michigan: It silences the talk of a white knight riding to the GOP’s rescue. While such an outcome might not have occurred even if Romney lost -- was a Christie/Daniels/Jeb Bush really going to jump in this late in the game? -- last night pretty much closed the door on that kind of speculation, even if Romney struggles next week on Super Tuesday (which is entirely possible). The other result: It drives home the point to all that Romney has PLENTY of work to do to close the deal with rank-and-file conservatives and convince his party that he can be a strong nominee. At his media avail yesterday in Michigan, Romney admitted that. "The candidate sometimes makes some mistakes, and so I'm trying to do better and work harder and make sure that we get our message across." Yet Romney also appears to have a message problem and a campaign problem. (Does the campaign appear competent because it is, or does it look that way in comparison to the other GOP campaigns?) And the campaign has to ask itself: How did they come this close to disaster… in MICHIGAN????

*** February took a toll on Romney: As we end the month of February, it’s worth noting the toll it took on Romney. When February began, the Conventional Wisdom was that it was tailor-made for the former Massachusetts governor. It started right after Romney’s big win in Florida; the only two big primaries in the month were on Romney turf (Michigan and Arizona); it featured just one debate (preventing a Gingrich or even Santorum from using it to build momentum); and in between were minor contests (in Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri) that no one would pay attention to. But here’s what happened: Victories in those supposed minor contests gave Santorum all the momentum he needed to give Romney a run for his money in Michigan; Romney committed numerous verbal gaffes (“I’m not concerned about the very poor,” two Cadillacs, NASCAR team owners); his staff made mistakes (the Ford Field speech); and national polls showed an erosion of support from independent voters. Bottom line: He started the month looking strong and ends it looking weak.

*** Team Romney turns its attention to Obama: The Romney campaign has a new web video -- also serving as a fundraising solicitation -- that turns its attention to President Obama and notes how Team Obama and its Democratic allies tried to help defeat Romney in Michigan. Speaking of fundraising solicitations… Romney made what appears to be his first primary-night pitch for supporters to actually go to his website and give money. As we've been reporting for the last week, there is reason to believe Romney has a money problem, and we know he does not want to write a check like he did four years ago. It is amazing, by the way, that the frontrunner for the GOP nomination is likely to have fewer individual donors than two of his opponents (Santorum and Paul) when the next reports come out (March 20).

Top Talkers: Mitt Romney takes home two wins in Michigan and Arizona after the state's primaries, and the Morning Joe panel – including Time's Mark Halperin, MSNBC's Michael Steele, and Random House's Jon Meacham – discusses Romney's win and why Santorum didn't walk away with Michigan the way some expected.

*** Did Santorum lose Michigan? As for Santorum, you could make the argument that he lost Michigan more than Romney winning it. In past contests, we’ve seen the Romney campaign destroy all of its opponents. But in this case, Santorum hurt himself with self-inflicted wounds. His debate performance in Arizona. His college/snob line. His attack on JFK’s 1960 speech. Just look at the exit polls in Michigan: Romney crushed Santorum among “somewhat conservatives,” 50%-32%. That suggests he turned off rank-and-file Republicans who might not be excited about Romney, but who aren’t as conservative as Santorum and were turned off by the rhetoric. Next week’s Super Tuesday contest in Ohio becomes a must-win proposition if Santorum wants to be the GOP nominee or even simply REMAIN the chief alternative. The good news for him: It’s more than doable. Polls taken before last night’s contests show him ahead in the Buckeye State; the demographics there are very similar what we saw in Michigan; and Romney doesn’t have a built-in advantage in the state. But here’s the bad news: Romney’s victories last night could give him the momentum that he needs to erase Santorum’s lead. What’s more, Romney and his allies currently enjoy a 6-to-1 ad spending advantage in Ohio (see below) when that edge was just 2-to-1 in Michigan -- and even smaller than that in the final week of the contest.

*** The delegate battle: Here’s one final point about Michigan: NBC News can declare that Romney and Santorum have each won six of Michigan’s congressional districts, giving them 12 delegates. (And when you add the one at-large delegate each won, they stand at 13 each.) But there are two undecided districts (the 5th and 13th) -- one where Romney is leading by some 60 votes (with more to be counted), and one where Santorum is up some 40 votes. So, yes, it's still possible for Santorum to win more delegates in Michigan than Romney.

*** On to Super Tuesday: So now we move to next week’s Super Tuesday contests -- and even before that the Washington caucuses this Saturday. The big Super Tuesday prize is Ohio, given that it seems all the candidates (sans Paul) will be campaigning there. And here is the early campaigning strategy: Romney stumps in Ohio (today and Friday), North Dakota (Thursday), Idaho (Thursday), and Washington state (Thursday); Santorum heads to Tennessee (today) and Ohio (Friday); Gingrich hits Georgia (today, Thursday, and on Super Tuesday); and Paul campaigns in Washington state (Thursday, Friday, and Saturday), Alaska (Saturday and Sunday), and Idaho (Monday and Tuesday). By the way, keep an eye on Tennessee. It's the ONE Southern State on Super Tuesday -- excluding Virginia -- where Romney could overperform. And if he wins it, he could actually begin to put this nomination away for good.

*** Super Tuesday ad spending: As in the other contests, Romney and his allies have a sizable spending edge in the Super Tuesday states.

Ohio: Restore Our Future $2.25 million; Romney $1.2 million; Winning Our Future $498,000; Santorum $275,000; Red, White and Blue Fund $255,000
: Restore Our Future $1.5 million; Winning Our Future $1.1 million; Romney $327,000; Santorum $152,000; Gingrich $15,000
: Restore Our Future $915,000; Winning Our Future $464,000; Santorum $130,000; Gingrich $3,000
: Restore Our Future $378,000; Winning Our Future $323,000; Santorum $90,000, Romney $8,000; Gingrich $2,000
: Romney $37,000
Restore $5 million; Romney $1.5 million; Winning $2.4 million; Santorum $647,000; Red, White and Blue $225,000; Gingrich $20,000

*** On the trail, per NBC’s Adam Perez: Romney hosts two events in Ohio, rallying in Toledo and Bexley… Gingrich remains in Georgia, making stops in Atlanta, Covington and Gainseville… Santorum rallies in Nashville, TN… And Paul hits Washington, DC.

*** Two points on Snowe’s retirement: We want to make two points about Olympia Snowe’s retirement announcement yesterday. One, it gives Democrats a better than 50%-50% chance of holding the Senate in November. If Democrats win in Maine and Massachusetts, then they’ve moved the bar to Republicans needing to win five seats (if Obama loses) and six (if he wins). We can see how Republicans get to four (North Dakota, Nebraska, Montana, and Missouri). And we can see how they maybe get to five (adding Virginia or Wisconsin or Ohio). But six? That would mean that Republicans would need to win in a New Mexico or a Florida or a Michigan. It's a tall order; they didn't sweep all the toss-ups in 2010, which was a much BETTER landscape for the GOP.  Two, Snowe’s stated reason for not seeking re-election in 2012 -- increased polarization in the Senate -- couldn’t have been scripted better by David Plouffe or David Axelrod. “I do find it frustrating … that an atmosphere of polarization and 'my way or the highway' ideologies has become pervasive in campaigns and in our governing institutions," she said yesterday. There’s a reason why President Obama released a statement on Snowe’s announcement yesterday when he didn’t do the same for other announced GOP senators (Kyl and Hutchison).

*** The latest GOP aisle-crosser to leave the Senate: And by the way, Snowe is just the latest of the regular Republican aisle-crosser to leave the Senate (by retirement or loss) since 2008. Here are some of the others: Bob Bennett, George Voinovich, Judd Gregg, Arlen Specter (though he switched parties), Mel Martinez, Chuck Hagel, Gordon Smith, and John Warner. And get this: Susan Collins now becomes the last remaining Senate Republican who voted for the stimulus back in 2009. 

Countdown to Super Tuesday: 6 days
Countdown to Election Day: 251 days

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