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Published: Friday, 3/2/2012

COMMENTARY

Did Romney really win Michigan?

BY JACK LESSENBERRY
BLADE OMBUDSMAN

BLOOMFIELD HILLS, Mich. -- Mitt Romney grew up in this affluent town, on a secluded street in the richest suburb in the most well-heeled county in Michigan.

Though he hasn't lived here for nearly half a century, Oakland County saved him from a humiliating primary election defeat this week at the hands of fellow GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum, a man who two months ago was almost totally unknown in Michigan.

The son of one of Michigan's best-known governors beat Mr. Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, by a mere 32,000 votes. Almost all that came from his margin of victory in Oakland County.

Wayne County, which includes the city of Detroit, where Mr. Romney was born in 1947, gave him a margin of nearly 10,000 votes. Take away those two counties, and the native son would have lost Michigan.

Mr. Santorum beat Mr. Romney in two-thirds of the state's counties. They each carried the same number of congressional districts, and split Michigan's delegates to the Republican National Convention.

When the outcome was clear, Mitt Romney told his supporters: "We didn't win by a lot, but we won by enough."

Did he? Not according to a senior Santorum strategist, who was quoted as saying that the contest was essentially a tie and the vote could "only be seen as a disaster for Mitt Romney."

That's not likely to be the way most people perceive it. The former Massachusetts governor did win. He also defeated his main rival in Arizona the same day by a much larger margin. That gives Mr. Romney some momentum heading into next week's 10-state Super Tuesday primaries, including Ohio's.

Mr. Romney has far more money and more troops on the ground in more states than anyone else. He's also run for president before, and should know more about what it takes.

But looked at analytically, the result in Michigan could be seen as a humiliation for Mr. Romney. Even if he wins the nomination, it indicates some huge weaknesses.

Consider: Yes, Mr. Romney beat Mr. Santorum, partly by spending nearly twice as much. But add the essentially anti-Romney votes cast for Newt Gingrich, and Mr. Romney would have lost.

Now add the Ron Paul votes, and Mr. Romney would've lost by a landslide. According to unofficial final returns, Mr. Romney got 410,517 votes in Michigan. But 588,325 votes were cast against him.

Even in a contest where social conservatives dominate, Mr. Santorum is something of a far-out candidate. He has equated stable gay relationships with "man-on-dog" sex. Forget abortion as a litmus test: Mr. Santorum says the U.S. Supreme Court made a mistake when it legalized contraception back in the 1960s.

He also says President John F. Kennedy's famous speech on the need to keep church and state separate "makes you want to throw up."

Probably few Michigan voters would agree with Mr. Santorum on contraception. Fewer still ever heard of him before a few weeks ago. So why did so many Republicans vote for him?

The answer may have everything to do with their opinion of Mr. Romney, a man who doesn't seem to inspire anything like the passion that voters felt for Ronald Reagan or Barack Obama.

Those supporting Mr. Romney told reporters they did so because "it makes sense" or "he has the qualifications" or "he's the only one who can win in November."

That might be the case. Certainly the rest of the primary field is loaded with baggage, from Mr. Gingrich's three wives and admitted adultery to Mr. Paul's suspected ties to the John Birch Society.

But campaigns are largely about romance. Given their choice, few men -- or women -- would want to date the sensible, rational choice their mother might pick for them. They want to fall in love and be swept off their feet. Voters are much the same.

Conservatives are deeply distrustful of the former governor's views on social issues. They note that when Mr. Romney was running for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts in 1994, he was pro-choice and strongly pro-gay rights. Now, he says he has changed.

What does he believe? Does a man change his fundamental beliefs in late middle age?

Regardless, the hard-fought primary contest doesn't seem to be doing anything to help the eventual nominee win in November.

In the 1960s, when Mr. Romney was a student at Brigham Young University in Utah, other young men his age were dying in Vietnam. One of the officers in charge of that war once said: "It became necessary to destroy the village in order to save it."

Something like that may be happening in the GOP nomination battle, where the candidates seem to be striving to outdo each other in appealing to their party's hard right wing.

Why? Those are the people who vote in primaries. Turnout is traditionally small and skewed to the ideological extremes. In Michigan, all the Republican candidates proudly trumpeted that they never would have bailed out the auto industry.

Trouble is, that bailout is widely perceived as a success. The auto companies survived. They've paid much of the money back, are again profitable, and even are adding workers.

Bashing the bailout made little sense in Michigan, but that's what all the GOP candidates did. When the primary campaign began, Mr. Romney was nearly even with President Obama in a hypothetical November contest. Today, the polls show Mr. Romney 18 points behind.

November is a long way off. At this rate, Republicans may find the road to the White House considerably longer.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade's ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

Contact him at: omblade@aol.com



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