When he needed it most, Mitt Romney's home state of Michigan came through for him.
Romney, the front-runner in the GOP's nomination battle, clinched a key victory on Tuesday in Michigan's presidential primary. With 88 percent of votes tallied, he led former US Sen. Rick Santorum 41 percent to 38 percent. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) placed third, with 12 percent of the vote, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich rounded out the pack in fourth, with 7 percent.
Minutes after polls closed in Arizona, Mitt Romney was declared the winner of the state's Republican presidential primary by multiple media outlets. The win adds 29 delegates to Romney's tally, bringing him to 159 overall. That's a lead of 118 delegates over former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and 119 over Romney's closest competitor, Rick Santorum. Exit polls in Arizona put Romney far ahead of Santorum, 43 percent to 28 percent.
Romney's win in Arizona comes as no surprise. He entered the primary with a 15 percentage point lead over Santorum, a gap that Santorum never came close to narrowing in recent days. Fighting on Romney's behalf was the super-PAC Restore Our Future, which spent $206,337 on ads attacking Gingrich and $452,712 bashing Santorum. The pro-Santorum super-PAC Red, White, and Blue Fund did not spend any money in the state.
Romney's Arizona win could help to quiet the growing chorus of critics questioning his conservative bona fides and broader appeal to the Republican base. But the more crucial test on Tuesday is Romney's performance in Michigan, his home state, where he faces a much tougher challenge from Rick Santorum.
Overall, Wisconsinites are split on whether to Walker, 49 percent to 49 percent. In a hypothetical general election, Walker trails Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett 49 percent to 46 percent, and lags behind former Dane County executive Kathleen Falk 48 percent to 47 percent, according to a new survey by the left-leaning Public Policy Polling. The last time PPP surveyed Wisconsinites, Walker led Falk by 8 percentage points and Barrett by two.
PPP's margin of error is 3.3 percent, which means these match-ups are essentially dead even right now. But PPP president Dean Debham said the numbers are encouraging news for Wisconsin Democrats in their push to oust Walker. "These are the most encouraging numbers we've found for Democrats in Wisconsin related to the Walker recall since last August," Debnam said in a statement. "Walker's numbers had been seeing some recovery, but now it appears they've turned back in the wrong direction. The big question now is whether Democrats can find a candidate to take advantage of Walker’s vulnerability."
Even among lesser-known Wisconsin Democrats, including some who've given no indication that they would challenge Walker, the match-ups are close. US Congressman Ron Kind leads Walker 46-45 is the other Democrat who leads Walker, 46-45. Secretary of State Doug LaFollette, former US Congressman David Obey, and state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout all trail by just one or two percentage points.
Among the Democrats, the winner in these latest poll numbers is arguably Tom Barrett. Not only did he open up a lead on Walker, but he would cruise to victory in a hypothetical Democratic primary, beating Kathleen Falk 45-18. A January PPP poll showed Barrett ahead of Falk 46-27.
PPP also found that more Wisconsinites dislike Walker than like him, 52 percent to 47 percent. That means Walker's fate could very well rest in the hands of independent voters. Problem is, independents don't think that highly of Walker—55 percent dislike him compared to 43 percent who support him. What remains to be seen is whether tens of millions of dollars in TV ads, direct mail, and other messaging funded by mega-donors such as David Koch and Bob Perry can win over those independents in time for the spring election.
With Mitt Romney, the GOP establishment's pick in the 2012 presidential nomination battle, still unable to win over dyed-in-the-wool Republicans, the chatter about drafting a new, more popular candidate continues to grow.
On CNN Tuesday morning, Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), chair of the House homeland security committee, hinted at a whisper campaign among "top Republicans" who want a GOP favorite such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie or Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) to enter the race if Romney loses the Michigan or Arizona primaries or struggles on Super Tuesday, when ten states controlling 437 delegates hold GOP primaries on March 6. "I think there’s going to be more of an interest, more of an emphasis on having someone ready if on Super Tuesday... Mitt Romney does not manage to break loose, and to have that candidate ready to come in," King said. He added, "Again, I have no inside knowledge. Just whispering and mumbling here among top Republicans who are concerned that Governor Romney has not been able to break loose."
King told CNN's Soledad O'Brien that he sees the Michigan primary as a make-or-break moment for the Romney campaign. "From my perspective, if Romney does not win Michigan, it creates real problems for his candidacy," he said. "I think you then will start seeing more activity among the Republican establishment, whatever that is, talking to people like Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, Paul Ryan, Mitch Daniels, people like that."
Romney heads into the Michigan primary with a razor-thin 1 percentage point lead over former US senator Rick Santorum, according to RealClearPolitics polling data. Romney fares even worse in national polls, trailing Santorum by 3 percentage points, according to RCP. The pressure on Romney to dig out a win in Michigan is huge, given that he grew up there and that his dad, George Romney, served as governor from 1963 to 1969. Yet Romney's opposition to the federal bailouts of General Motors and Chrysler has dented his support there, and he finds himself locked in a bitter fight with the surging Santorum.
Romney could very well pull off a win in Michigan. Even if he does, though, he's been humbled in a state he once called home.
Walker told MSNBC's Willie Geist that the recall effort is "a huge distraction" for himself and Wisconsin state lawmakers. Grassroots organizers turned in more than a million signatures in November to trigger the recall election, which is expected to take place this spring. "I mean, it's $9 million of taxpayers' money just to run this," he said. "Think about the number of kids we could help, think of the number of seniors we could help in our state with $9 million that we didn't have to waste on this—this frivolous recall election."
How ironic. In his first budget, Walker slashed public education funding by $800 million to $900 million. Walker and his administration have also sought to cut Medicaid funding, in effect booting more than 50,000 low-income families from the program, better known as BadgerCare Plus. The $9 million price tag for his recall election pales in comparison to the cost-cutting now pinching some of Wisconsin's students and some of its most vulnerable citizens.
Walker went on to say that he's encouraged by statewide polls showing in the lead over a handful of prospective Democratic challengers. A January poll by Marquette University showed Walker leading former Dane County executive Kathleen Falk, a union favorite, 49 percent to 42 percent. Walker also led Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who narrowly lost in the 2010 gubernatorial race, 50 percent to 44 percent. That said, Walker remains a divisive figure in Wisconsin. The same Marquette poll said 46 percent of those polled supported Walker while 48 percent did not.
Wisconsin Democrats, meanwhile, have unveiled their first ad of the recall fight, linking Walker to President Richard Nixon. The ad takes aim at the secretive "John Doe" probe targeting former Walker aides and compares the investigation to the Watergate scandal that led to Nixon's resignation, the first for a sitting president. Here's the ad: