Mitt Romney perhaps put it best last night when he said "We didn't win by a lot, but we won by enough," a rather uninspiring observation that may end up being the tagline for his primary campaign.
Romney avoided what could have been a critical blow in Michigan last night, but his campaign has exposed weaknesses and opened the door for opponents to continue to challenge him through the summer, stringing together enough delegates to slow Romney's pace and make him an even more battered candidate should he find his way to the general election.
Christopher Rowland of The Boston Globe writes that the narrow nature of Romney's win in Michigan demonstrates the continued weakness of his candidacy. The opposition's narrative against Romney over the last month is likely to continue in hard fought upcoming primaries in Ohio, Georgia and Tennessee, and given the new rules allocating delegates, the possibility of the former Massachusetts governor delivering a knockout punch on Super Tuesday, as John McCain did in 2008, seems unlikely.
"Although Romney leads in the delegate count for now, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum are positioned to accumulate large numbers. Three conservative Super Tuesday states - Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Gingrich’s home state of Georgia - are especially unfriendly territory for the former Massachusetts governor.
Ohio, similar to Michigan in economic and political complexion, appears to be the biggest battleground state and will probably be the scene of the most intense struggle in coming days to define the Republican agenda. Romney wants to keep the focus on the economy and President Obama. His opponents keep pulling him into arguments about social issues and his own qualifications as a conservative.
It all adds up to this: Romney fans hoping he can mimic McCain’s Super Tuesday feats in 2008 are almost certainly going to be disappointed. Four years ago, McCain mortally wounded or eliminated the competition on that day, which landed in February. Romney dropped out first, then Mike Huckabee. But that was with an abundance of winner-take-all states.
Given the new delegate rules, the geography of Super Tuesday, and the depth of Romney’s unpopularity among conservatives, the most likely scenario next week is a divided outcome.
“It will be less definitive’’ than 2008, said Barbara Norrander, a University of Arizona political science professor and specialist on primaries. The eventual outcome of the process, she said, “will depend on whether Santorum and Gingrich will behave like candidates in the past and drop out once they start to lag behind in delegate totals.’’
The alternative is they do well enough to stay close to Romney and never quit, taking their fight to the Republican convention."
Beyond the primary battle, Ross Douthat writes Wednesday in The New York Times that since South Carolina, Romney's narrative on the stump and in policy has become as weak as ever for the general election:
"The White House might prefer to face Rick Santorum in the general election, but an out-of-touch rich guy running on Medicare cuts and an ill-considered tax plan will make for a pretty inviting target in his own right.
This is not where Romney expected to find himself at this point in the campaign, with months and months of careful positioning undone by several weeks of gaffes and defensive political maneuverings. But between his verbal miscues and his clumsy attempts to defend his right flank on policy, the likely Republican nominee is suddenly headed for the kind of political and ideological cul-de-sac that losing presidential candidates often end up occupying.
Thanks to the voters of Michigan, Romney’s path to the nomination is as wide open as ever. But his path to the White House has narrowed considerably."
A lot can happen from now to the convention, from the convention to general election. But where things stand, it's safe to say that the Romney campaign can not be thrilled with their current position, both in delegates and public perception.