PERRYSBURG, Ohio—Mitt Romney is in for a nail-biter in Michigan tonight, where a final round of polls suggest he may struggle to win the delegate vote and the popular vote, a blow that could deny the former governor the momentum he needs to end a long, damaging primary.
Romney's campaign is downplaying expectations in advance of the vote, with surrogate Saul Anuzis telling reporters on Monday that there is a strong possibility they will be split. But Romney isn't ceding victory, even if Santorum gets more votes.
"We need delegates by the way," Romney told reporters today in a rare press conference as polls opened. "What we are after is delegates."
But Romney's campaign isn't quite ready to give in to that defensive spin.
"That sounds a lot like 2000," Romney's top media advisor, Stuart Stevens, interjected, when told of the delegate discussion, referring to the George W. Bush's victory at the Electoral College vote after losing popular vote.
Failing to win the popular vote, despite outspending Santorum two-to-one, will be an disappointment for Romney at precisely the moment he needs a win, and in a state whose symbolism — if not reality — is as the candidate's first home.
If Michigan falls, the Romney campaign has set of Ohio as the next firewall against Santorum's rise, moving its experienced Florida team to the state to lay the groundwork for a victory on Super Tuesday. But Ohio is just one of many states voting next week in a day that will be a mixed bag, with Santorum and Gingrich virtually assured to carry some states. March will also be unforgiving, with caucus states more hospitable to Santorum on the roster, before primary voting in larger states returns in April.
This morning, Romney called the race "too close to call," in a bid to lower expectations for his performance today noting he was behind by 15 points in one poll two weeks ago, but he and his campaign already have already pledged to win the state. Even Anuzis admitted that a split-victory would not give Romney the bump he needs going into next week's contests.
"I’m predicting we’re going to surprise a lot of people in Michigan," Santorum said during a rally in Ohio.
"The polls are looking good, the momentum is shifting in our direction," she said, implying that winning the popular vote is more significant. "There is a strong chance that whomever comes in first, won't walk away with the most number of delegates."
If Romney wins both the popular vote and the delegate count today, the media narrative going into Super Tuesday will be a resurgent Romney. If not, it will be a struggling Romney, hunting for delegates wherever he can find them. That's no front-runner.
With McKay Coppins in Livonia, Michigan.