Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Michigan primary: Results could reset GOP presidential contest

Mitt Romney

Seeking fresh momentum going into the Super Tuesday round of presidential contests, Republican contenders Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum were battling for advantage in crucial primary elections in Michigan and Arizona on Tuesday.

Polls closed in all but four Michigan counties at 5 p.m. Pacific time, with the rest to close an hour later. Santorum led Romney 42% to 37% in the first fraction of votes counted.

For Romney, anything less than a solid win in his native Michigan, which he won easily four years ago, was expected to deepen doubts about the potency of his appeal to GOP voters and the strength of his claim to the frontrunner mantle.

Santorum, his popularity slipping in national polls, hoped to gain badly needed validation of his status as the leading conservative in the party. Preliminary reports from Michigan suggested that election day turnout was low, repeating a pattern seen in other states this year. It was not immediately clear which candidate would benefit.

Santorum drew enthusiastic crowds in the closing days of the campaign and was thought to have the most devoted supporters. But Romney began election day with a potentially crucial advantage: a solid lead among those who cast absentee ballots. Opinion surveys suggested that he might have gained as much as a 50,000-vote lead among those who voted early.

The caustic race in Michigan, fueled by millions of dollars' worth of negative ads sponsored by wealthy supporters of both men, ended in a bitter round of name-calling on election day. Romney, speaking to volunteers at a campaign office, described Santorum as an "economic lightweight" and invoked Newt Gingrich's criticism of him as a "big-labor Republican."

Santorum, campaigning in Grand Rapids, shot back that Romney "is a lightweight on conservative accomplishments, which happens to be more important than how much success and how much money you've made in business."

A potential wild card was the opportunity for MichiganDemocrats, as well as independent voters, to participate in the state's open Republican primary. Early exit polls showed that Democrats cast 10% of the primary ballots, up from 7% in 2008; half of the Democrats said they voted for Santorum and only 15% for Romney, according to exit poll data.

With election eve polls showing a tight race, Romney accused Santorum of desperate "dirty tricks" designed to "throw" the election, a reference to the automated phone calls the Santorum campaign placed to Michigan Democrats urging them to vote for the former Pennsylvania senator.

Santorum defended the calls, telling reporters that he reached out to Democrats to show that "we can attract voters we need to win states like Michigan" in the fall.

And in a shot at his rival, he said, "I don't remember Mitt Romney running around and doing anything but trying to encourage Democrats and independents to vote for him in New Hampshire. When he does that it's OK, and in so doing trying to appeal as a moderate to get them to vote for him," Santorum said.

He also brushed aside Romney's criticisms by noting that the former Massachusetts governor used Santorum's own words endorsing him in the 2008 race on a robocall of his own.

"I didn't complain about it. I don't complain. You know what, I'm a big guy. I can take it," Santorum said. "If someone wants to go out and take cheap shots … "

The other GOP candidates were far behind the leaders. Gingrich did not contest Michigan, though his name was on the ballot; he spent the day campaigning in Georgia, which the former House speaker once represented in Congress. It is the biggest prize among the 11 Super Tuesday states that will choose delegates next week.

Rep. Ron Paul, who was hoping to grab a few convention delegates in Michigan, spent election night in Virginia, another Super Tuesday state.

The day's other contest, in Arizona, was vastly overshadowed.

Arizona offered 29 delegates, just one less than Michigan. But unlike Michigan, the state awards its delegates on a winner-take-all basis, and given Romney's considerable advantages -- a base in the sizable Mormon community, the backing of the entire state GOP establishment, lingering support from his run four years ago -- other candidates essentially surrendered rather than fight and risk walking away empty-handed.

Romney also benefited from an organizational focus on Arizona's early voters. As much as half the turnout was expected to come from ballots cast by mail or dropped off ahead of election day, with surveys showing Romney with a commanding lead even before the polls opened Tuesday.

In Michigan, the 30 delegates were expected to divide mainly among Romney and Santorum. All but two were awarded on congressional district basis, with the winner getting two delegates in each of 14 districts.

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