With only a couple of days left until the crucial Michigan primary, it appears that the latest momentum swing in the Republican presidential contest may have saved Mitt Romney’s candidacy. A loss to Rick Santorum in his home state would be a devastating blow to the GOP’s erstwhile frontrunner. But Santorum’s surprising surge appears to have ground to halt in the last week. A renewed focus on his extremely conservative views on social issues combined with an all-out attack on his congressional record by Romney’s well-oiled campaign machine has damaged the Pennsylvanian. Even more, a poor performance in what was probably the last Republican debate on Wednesday may have been the turning point in this latest chapter of a highly volatile race. All signs point to a Romney victory in Michigan on Tuesday. With Arizona also likely to go for Romney that same day, it will be possible for his campaign to again proclaim his nomination is inevitable.

But amid the good news, there are also some troubling signs for Romney. Just as he did a month earlier with Newt Gingrich in Florida, Romney’s assaults have succeeded in diminishing the appeal of his foe. By going negative in this manner, he has further embittered an already nasty primary battle and ensured his opponents will stay in the race long after they are no longer viable. Even more importantly, by attacking Santorum from the right, Romney has given new credence to the charges he is a hypocrite and a political chameleon who is willing to say anything in order to gain a momentary advantage. This will hurt him in the long slog toward November.

The process by which Romney is trying to take down Santorum has been efficiently run and done the job as befits the work of a brilliant businessman and planner. Romney has sought to brand Santorum as a symbol of dysfunctional Washington establishment and even tried to cast doubt on the former senator’s conservative bona fides. Combined with the well-founded doubts about his electability that Santorum’s comments about religion and contraception have inspired, Romney’s blasts may deliver him a sweep of the two states holding primaries on Tuesday. That would enable him to survive a three-week period during which Santorum’s surge provided the greatest challenge yet to Romney’s candidacy.

However, the single-minded manner with which Romney has sought to take Santorum apart will leave a bitter taste in the mouths of more than Santorum’s large family. The spectacle of a longtime GOP moderate criticizing the former senator for being a “team player” was absurd. So, too was Romney’s attack on Santorum’s backing for earmarks when it is remembered he asked Congress to use the same device to fund the 2002 Winter Olympics. And while some Pennsylvania conservatives are still sore at Santorum for backing Arlen Specter in 2004, Romney’s harping on this issue might have some credibility if he had actually backed Pat Toomey’s primary challenge.

It should be remembered that politics isn’t beanbag but it’s hard not to sympathize a bit with Santorum’s anger at having a recent convert to conservatism like Romney attacking him from the right. The ease with which Romney has tacked right on any issue where he had an opening against a specific candidate speaks to the hardheaded manner with which he has run his campaign. A president needs to be single-minded and even ruthless on occasion pursuing a goal. But Romney’s ability to harp on an opponent’s weaknesses in spite of his vulnerability on the same issues also reinforces the impression he is a bit of a phony with few identifiable ideological principles other than his faith and his family.

It is also Romney’s bad luck that the rules of the 2012 Republican presidential race make a knockout blow unlikely. Proportional delegate allocations will make it impossible for Romney to clinch the nomination until late in the spring at the earliest. It is likely Santorum will stay in to provide a conservative alternative to primary voters even if his losses in the next week make his nomination unlikely.

Romney may have been right to conclude the only way to beat his more conservative opponents was to besmirch them in any way possible (something that was a lot easier to do to a man with Newt Gingrich’s baggage than Santorum). But in doing so, he has stoked the anger of conservatives rather than won them over. A long, nasty primary battle that lasts for months will diminish Romney’s coffers and his vaunted advantage in electability.

Romney has many excellent qualities and his prowess as a problem-solving businessman may be what the country needs in 2012. He can make a strong argument that he is the only one of the remaining Republican candidates who can beat Barack Obama in November. But primary victories won by tactics that remind voters of his insincerity will make it much harder for him to accomplish that goal.

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