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Associated Press/Photo by Gerald Herbert

Double play

Politics | Mitt Romney gets big wins in Arizona and Michigan Tuesday, but questions remain

With Mitt Romney's victories in the Arizona and Michigan Republican presidential primaries, the Santorum sweep, for now, has been replaced by the Romney double play.

Romney's comfortable win in Arizona and his slim success in Michigan slowed down the momentum rival Rick Santorum showed earlier in February with his triumphs in Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri. But winning by just a little more than three percentage points in Michigan, the state where he was born, after outspending Santorum more than 5-to-1 there, Romney still has work to do to silence the persistent "anybody but Romney" Republicans.

Still trying to win over the Tea Party and the social conservative crowds, Romney's night Tuesday could have been better. But it also could have been worse: Just a week ago, Santorum led in Michigan polls. A Michigan loss for Romney would have unleashed a weeklong debate about his electability heading into Super Tuesday next week. Romney, in his victory speech Tuesday, acknowledged that a win is a win.

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"The pundits and the pollsters-they were ready to count us out," he said. "We didn't win by a lot, but we won by enough, and that's all that counts."

Romney will have to continue to address skepticism among social conservatives about his past support for abortion. He will also have to keep explaining the Massachusetts healthcare law he supported as governor to Tea Partiers who remain angry over President Obama's healthcare plan.

He will likely need some support from those two groups in future contests. But Romney's Michigan win on Tuesday showed that his economic message still carried weight in that hard-hit state despite recent signs of slight job growth and an uptick in the stock market.

In exit polls in Michigan, Santorum won the backing of evangelical conservatives over Romney 51 percent to 35 percent. But he lost to Romney among women (46 percent to 29 percent), college graduates (45 percent to 36 percent), and those who say the economy is their top issue (47 percent to 29 percent).

Over the past week, as Santorum touted his support for stay-at-home mothers and questioned the need of a college degree for all Americans, he faced fierce pushback from his rivals, Democrats, and the media.

The former senator from Pennsylvania tried to reintroduce himself to voters Tuesday night during his concession speech: "We have an opportunity tonight to tell you a little bit more about who Rick Santorum is." Santorum focused on energy, the economy, manufacturing, healthcare, and American history. He left out social issues after a week of spotlighting them.

Santorum began his Tuesday night speech by appealing to female voters through the stories of his mother, wife, and oldest daughter. He talked about how his now 93-year-old mother got a college education in the 1930s and went on to earn more than her husband.

"I grew up with a very strong mom, someone who was a professional person who taught me a lot of things about how to balance work and family, and doing it well, and doing it with a big heart and commitment," said Santorum, who then described his wife, Karen, as "a rock."

Santorum is expected to emphasize this working-class personal narrative, including the fact that his grandfather worked as a coal miner, as the race heads to its next key states, including the industrial heartland of Ohio. He will try to overcome Romney's money and manpower by depicting the former Massachusetts governor as an elitist who is out of touch with the average voter (his wife owns two Cadillacs and his friends own NASCAR teams, to name two of Romney's own recent admissions).

Despite their rivalry, Santorum and Romney stressed similar core messages in both their Tuesday night speeches, with both pledging to tackle big government.

Santorum described a government that is "crushing us every single day with more taxes, more regulations, and the idea that they know better than you how to run your life."

Romney said, "President Obama is making the federal government bigger, more burdensome, and bloated. I'll make it simpler, smaller, and smarter, and it's about time for that to happen."

Before either Romney or Santorum can take on Barack Obama they must continue to clash with each other. Next week's Super Tuesday, when 10 states hold contests, includes key battles in Ohio, Georgia, and Tennessee.

Santorum and Romney will square off in Ohio, where Romney hopes his Michigan win will give him a boost. Meanwhile, Newt Gingrich, who has been quiet since his Florida defeat, may become a factor again in Tennessee and Georgia. As the former speaker of the House challenges Romney in these Southern states, Romney must prove that he can overcome his earlier South Carolina loss and attract support among Southern conservatives. That is a voting demographic that the GOP nominee will need to rely on heavily during the general election.

Edward Lee Pitts
Edward Lee Pitts

Lee is WORLD's Washington Bureau chief. As a reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press, he was embedded with a National Guard unit in Iraq. He also once worked in the press office of Sen. Lamar Alexander.

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