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Romney Takes the GOP Lead

February 29, 2012

Tuesday's primaries bent the GOP presidential contest solidly in Mitt Romney's direction. Trailing Rick Santorum by 10 points in the Inside Michigan Politics/MRG poll two weeks ago, Mr. Romney battled back to win his birthplace by three percentage points. He beat Mr. Santorum by 20 points in Arizona, sweeping all the state's 29 delegates.

Michigan was Mr. Santorum's best shot at delivering a fatal blow to Mr. Romney. He logged as many campaign stops as Mr. Romney, and he benefited from a social-conservative majority in the western part of the state. His super PAC spent more than it had in any other contest. Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich left both states largely to him—Mr. Paul focusing on the upcoming caucus states (Washington, Alaska, Idaho, North Dakota), and Mr. Gingrich trying to stop his slide in Georgia (his home state) where polls show Mr. Santorum gaining.

Yet Mr. Santorum couldn't beat Mr. Romney mano-a-mano. Unforced errors played a role. Mr. Santorum's crude dismissal of John F. Kennedy's famous 1960 speech advocating the strict separation of church and state didn't come across well. Nor did his suggestion that wanting everyone to attend college is snobbish. And his robocalls inviting Democrats to crash the GOP contest boomeranged.

More important, Mr. Romney found his voice on economic issues, laying out a bolder, crisper pro-growth agenda in a Detroit Economic Club appearance last Friday. Most Michiganders (54%) said the economy was the most important issue, and they split 45% for Mr. Romney to 29% for Mr. Santorum. The Economic Club speech would have had even greater impact, but coverage focused on the odd visual of 1,200 people seated on the gridiron of Detroit's Ford Field, a football stadium built for 65,000.

Mr. Romney's wins this week give him 163 delegates, according to The Wall Street Journal count. (The Republican National Committee's official tally was not available as this op-ed went to press.) And Mr. Romney hopes it gives him momentum in the state polls going into next Tuesday's 10 contests (Alaska, Georgia, Idaho, Massachusetts, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Vermont and Virginia). Already he's regained the lead in Gallup's national tracking, finding himself the front-runner for the fourth time since November.

While four candidates fight on to Super Tuesday, one or even two may not survive the coming week's battles over 509 delegates.

The caucuses this Saturday in Washington (43 delegates), and next Tuesday in Alaska (27) and North Dakota (28) seem tailor-made for Mr. Paul, though Mr. Romney is barnstorming in North Dakota today.

Mr. Romney appears likely to take virtually all the delegates in Massachusetts (41), Virginia (49) and Vermont (17), as well as in the Idaho caucuses (32) Tuesday and the Wyoming caucuses (29) later next week. He'll also pick up delegates in the three Southern primaries, where the delegates are awarded proportionally, perhaps even winning a chunk of Tennessee's 58 delegates.

If Mr. Gingrich fails to take Georgia (76 delegates)—which he represented in Congress for two decades—he's done. Even if he wins a plurality, he must carry one or both of the other Southern states voting that day—Oklahoma (43 delegates) and Tennessee (58), since he failed to qualify for the Virginia primary—or risk being marginalized. Even with other Southern victories, he could look like a regional candidate.

Mr. Santorum is focused on Ohio, Tuesday's key battleground with 66 delegates. Mr. Romney can afford a narrow loss there as long as he wins a solid plurality of all the Super Tuesday delegates. Mr. Santorum's candidacy will realistically be at an end if he loses the Buckeye State, though he could linger for weeks. Even a win leaves him on life support unless he can also best Mr. Romney in Tuesday's Southern contests, coming in first or second with Mr. Romney trailing in second or third place.

While the GOP battle drags on, Team Obama has become downright cocky. But Mr. Obama's latest Gallup job approval rating is 43%; no president has ever been re-elected with such low job approval. This week, the Conference Board pegged consumer confidence at 75 points. By comparison, George W. Bush won re-election narrowly with consumer confidence at 94.4 in late February 2004.

The GOP battle is so intense this time because the president and his policies are so unpopular. Even the cheering from the media bleachers about an easy re-election has done little to change that so far.

This article originally appeared on WSJ.com on Wednesday, February 29, 2012.

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