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Mitt Romney's Narrow Michigan Win Avoids Disaster As Super Tuesday Looms

First Posted: 02/29/12 10:44 AM ET Updated: 02/29/12 10:44 AM ET

NOVI, Mich. -- The long slog continues.

Mitt Romney's narrow win over Rick Santorum in Michigan on Tuesday, combined with his decisive win in Arizona, allowed his campaign a sigh of relief. He knew he had narrowly missed hitting an iceberg.

Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, had 41 percent to Santorum's 38 percent, with 99 percent of the vote counted, according to the Associated Press. Romney won Arizona with 47 percent to Santorum's 27 percent, with 89 percent of the vote counted.

"We didn't win by a lot but we won by enough and that's all that counts," said Romney, who was measured in his exuberance, reflecting in his body language the knowledge that a long fight still lies ahead.

Yet Santorum won almost as many delegates as Romney in Michigan, and still had the potential to tie him on Wednesday morning. All but two of the state's 30 delegates were awarded based on who won each congressional district. Romney won seven districts to Santorum's six, giving him 15 delegates to Santorum's 13, according to the Detroit Free Press. One district remained up in the air, and if Santorum wins it, he'll tie Romney in delegates. Romney won all of Arizona's 29 delegates.

Losing the popular vote in Michigan would have been a body blow to Romney's chances at the GOP nomination, and would have thrown the Republican Party into convulsions. For the moment, the tremors and the talk of a late entry into the race by another candidate will be stilled.

But having avoided a gaze into the abyss, Romney and his campaign must quickly move to seize the initiative in Washington state, which will caucus Saturday, and then in several of the 10 states that will vote next week on Super Tuesday, a quickening of the primary's pace that stands in stark contrast to the three-week lull that preceded the contests in Michigan and Arizona.

Romney focused his victory speech on criticizing President Barack Obama, in keeping with the way he has sought to elevate himself every time he has won a primary contest. He spoke to supporters here in a suburb of Detroit, in Oakland County, where he romped decisively over Santorum with the help of upper-income, moderate Republican voters. Romney won 50 percent of the vote here and beat Santorum by more than 20 percentage points.

Romney had a marked edge among women voters, according to exit polls, beating Santorum 42 percent to 37 percent among women. That prompted Santorum -- who has made controversial remarks about contraception and prenatal testing, among other things -- to begin his concession speech by talking at length about his 93-year old mother, his wife of 21 years, Karen, and his eldest daughter, Elizabeth, one of his seven children.

Santorum said his mother "was a professional who actually made more money 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," he said.

Santorum was clearly disappointed that he had let victory slip away, after leading Romney by double digits following his victories on Feb. 7 in Minnesota, Colorado and Missouri. The long break since the Feb. 7 contests gave Romney the time he needed to build himself back up after napalming former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) in Florida and to deconstruct Santorum with negative ads.

But if Romney wants to keep doubts about his candidacy at a minimum, he must convert his win in Michigan into success on Super Tuesday. He will need to start with wins in states like Alaska, North Dakota and his home state of Massachusetts, all of which he won in 2008. And he'll need to compete in Ohio, where he got only 3 percent of the vote four years ago, and Vermont, where he got 5 percent in 2008.

Then, in the big southern states of Georgia and Tennessee, and the large Midwest state of Oklahoma, Romney will try to pick off delegates in the more urban and populated areas, which are awarding at least some of their delegates either proportionally by statewide popular vote or by congressional district.

Romney did respectably in Georgia, Tennessee and Oklahoma in 2008, earning 30 percent in Georgia and about 25 percent in the other two states. He was crushed in the other major Super Tuesday state, Virginia. But because Santorum and Gingrich have been understaffed and unorganized, neither collected the 10,000 signatures required to get their names on the ballot in Virginia, so Romney is all but assured of the state's 49 delegates.

There are 437 delegates up for grabs on Super Tuesday. Washington, which caucuses Saturday, awards 43 delegates.

Romney has now only amassed 163 delegates to Santorum's 83. Gingrich, who did not compete in Arizona or Michigan and is banking on a strong showing in Georgia and the other southern states on Super Tuesday, has 32, while Paul has 19.

The Romney campaign was still bitter Tuesday night about Santorum's call for Democrats in Michigan to vote for him and against Romney.

"Santorum will rue the day his campaign made the decision to court dems to vote in our primary," Austin Barbour, a national finance chairman for Romney's campaign who helped organize the campaign on the ground here, wrote on Twitter. "Will backfire with GOP."

A senior Romney adviser told The Huffington Post: "We won Republicans by comfortable margin, which [Santorum] realized, so he made last-minute play for Dem's. Follow the money is true just like follow the robocalls."

And Santorum beat Romney in Democrats' votes by a margin of 53 percent to 18 percent, with 17 percent for Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas). But Democrats made up only 9 percent of the primary vote, according to exit polls.

Santorum also won the majority of voters who identified as "very conservative," earning 50 percent of their vote to Romney's 38 percent.

The 2012 Republican primary has become a fascinating and at times bizarre spectacle.

Two months have now passed since the first contest in Iowa on Jan. 3, and the race remains about as muddled as it was then, when Romney was first declared the winner, only to have that decision reversed in a recount, handing Santorum the win in the Hawkeye State.

Santorum, Gingrich and Paul all appear determined to stay in the race as long as possible. And all are being sustained in part by super PACs, outside groups that can take unlimited donations and are being financed by a few individuals.

The primaries on Tuesday came at the end of a remarkable three-week period in which both Romney and Santorum regularly suffered self-inflicted wounds on the campaign trail.

Santorum, just in the last week, drew attention for 2008 comments about Satan, for calling the president a "snob" for wanting Americans to go to college, and for saying that former President John F. Kennedy's 1960 speech on the separation of church and state made him want to "throw up." He said on Tuesday he regretted that last comment.

But Romney kept pace, shooting himself in the foot as regularly. He called himself "severely conservative" in a major speech to grassroots activists, rambled awkwardly about the trees in Michigan being "the right height," and then reinforced the image of himself as out of touch by mentioning the "couple of Cadillacs" that his wife drives and the fact that he knew some NASCAR team owners while visiting the Daytona 500.

Perhaps the defining feature of the past week has been the bitterness and exasperation that has come to characterize feelings of both the Romney and Santorum campaigns about the news media. A major test of the days leading up to Super Tuesday will be who can do the best job of avoiding such unforced errors while driving a strong message.

Paige Lavender contributed to this report.

This story has been updated to reflect the number of delegates Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum have amassed.