On February 28th yet another step in the long 2012 presidential campaign looms, but this time the fate of both the Republican frontrunner and his challenger could be flipped upside down faster than the American auto industry in 2008.
At first glance the Michigan primary seems like it will go easier than collecting government bailout cash. All Romney has to do is play up his Detroit upbringing and robotically deliver rehearsed comments about blue collar jobs and counteracting urban decay. Instead of following along with the expected political script on jobs, Rick Santorum appears to be focusing on his far right social stances, an interesting gambit that could make or break Mitt Romney's chances for the White House. With so much conservative red meat served alongside his opponent's dry, tasteless chicken, the sweater vested Santorum is gaining nearly enough speed to force a devastating Mitt Romney crash and nothing short of a doomsday scenario for the Republican party.
On paper, Mitt Romney has many advantages in a state like Michigan. It is considered his home state, a place where his father once held strong political sway as Governer and a top auto executive. Also, Mitt can easily outspend Santorum, which could derail his campaign just like Romney's dollars knocked out Gingrich in Florida. History too is on Romney's side. Back in 2008 Michigan went to Romney even while the rest of the country's Republican primary voters were coalescing behind McCain. So why does recent polling in Michigan, once a lock for Romney, show a tightening race between Rick and Mitt?
Thanks to some of the Obama Administration's recent ill-timed decisions on contraception mandates, Rick Santorum is looking to make his dramatic stand on social issues in Michigan, one of the last primaries before Super Tuesday. So in typical Santorum fashion, the former Senator from Pennsylvania is resurrecting the early 90s culture wars of Pat Buchanan. Despite evidence that shows this message won't resonate with the wider public (it didn't help Santorum win his last Senate race in PA, alienates independent voters focused on the economy, and proved unsuccessful for Buchanan), Rick is betting that his far right social views will help him capitalize on the distrust that many conservative voters harbor about Romney's lack of strong principled convictions (and more subtly, their doubt about his Mormonism).
Ironically, Santorum's ill-advised gambit of social conservatism may help him win Michigan, but it will most likely eliminate any chances either he or Romney had of winning the nomination. Up until now pundits have mentioned the phrase "brokered convention" in the context of a far-fetched, but interesting thought experiment. However, if Romney suffers defeat in his home state, essentially shattering his momentum into Super Tuesday and anything left of his electability argument, Republican insiders will no doubt discuss the possibility of a brokered convention in much more realistic terms.
The party establishment knows that Santorum's penchant to deliver socially conservative brain dumps questioning the morality of contraception and the Christian theology of President Obama ring alarm bells with ninety percent of the voting electorate. With Romney's candidacy severely in question and the Obama team giddy over the chance of facing Rick Santorum in the general election, a new Republican presidential candidate will almost have to be hashed out at a brokered convention.
Before contemplating the implications of this doomsday scenario, some mention of the other two candidates in this race should be made. Newt Gingrich has vowed to continue despite recent poor showings and a lack of events in Michigan up to this point. While a long shot for the nomination, Newt could very well use his remaining dollars and public persona to deliver more blows to Mitt Romney. Or Newt could squash Romney in this week's final debate before Super Tuesday and rise again like he did in South Carolina.
As for Ron Paul, his solid base of supporters will probably deliver him at least fifteen percent of the Michigan primary vote, just enough to ensure that he will get at least two delegates. Although barely mentioned by the news media, the Paul campaign has quite an underdog strategy which could end up more successful than the pundits will admit. Taking advantage of a rule change for this year's primary in which many state delegates are now awarded proportionately rather than in a winner-take-all format, Dr. Paul is slowly picking up delegates in each state rather than placing an inordinate amount of effort into any one place in particular. Paul's long-term delegate-centric strategy, coupled with his strong organization and a fundraising style reminiscent of the 2008 Obama campaign, could bring him enough clout come convention time to warrant that his candidacy or at least his issues deserve serious consideration as the Mitt Romney alternative.
Of course, right now these are just hypotheticals, but one thing is certain. Republicans already know what kind of candidate will defeat Barack Obama; they're just not sure this person is currently in the race. Since the Republican landslide victories of 2010, the winning message hasn't changed, and it doesn't involve church or what goes on in people's bedrooms. It's the economy, stupid. The phrase is just as politically powerful today as it was when Bill Clinton unseated the last incumbent presidential candidate twenty years ago. Yet, amazingly Obama's challengers are taking a different tack in Michigan, even if it means ripping their party apart.
Fasten your seatbelts, America, because as Detroit goes, so goes the nation...