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Santorum Misses His Chance as Romney Dodges Bullet in Michigan

On a night in which he could have lost the presidential nomination, Mitt Romney survived the worst crisis of his campaign by sweeping both the Arizona and Michigan primaries. With polls showing his native Michigan being too close to call, Romney’s 41-38 percentage point win was not impressive, but Rick Santorum lost his one golden opportunity to demolish the frontrunner. Santorum can claim a moral victory of sorts because he managed to come so close to winning in a state in which few gave him a chance several weeks ago.

But Romney’s Michigan win combined with a big victory in Arizona denied his rival the chance to alter the dynamics of the race. A Santorum win in Michigan would have permanently demolished the idea that Romney was the inevitable nominee. Slim though Romney’s margin was, two more states in his column make it highly unlikely anyone else can take the nomination from him.

The Romney win was in no small measure due to Santorum’s gaffes on John F. Kennedy and college attendance as well as the unfortunate focus on contraception that highlighted the Pennsylvania’s unpopular views on the subject.  These unforced errors demonstrated Santorum’s poor political judgment and his predilection for outlandish ideology-driven statements. The Super Tuesday primaries and in particular Ohio represent one more big chance for Santorum. But he’ll never have a better opportunity to derail Romney than the one he has just blown in Michigan.

Romney still faces a long, hard slog in the coming months, as the GOP’s delegate allocation rules will prevent him from clinching the nomination for months. That will undermine his chances of winning in November. His inability to close the deal with conservatives and the nasty tone to the Republican race will also make it hard for him to unite his party. Yet, he will wake up on Wednesday firmly in control of the race after spending most of February on the defensive and looking up at Santorum in the national tracking polls.

The battle for the nomination has damaged Romney but if, as seems likely now, he eventually prevails, he will have time to recover before the general election campaign begins. At that point he will be at the mercy of the fates as the economy and possible foreign policy disasters such as Iran will ultimately decide who wins in November. But in order to get to that point, he had to win tonight. Having done so, he can breathe a sigh of relief and move on to the next challenge.