Tightening Arizona Race Heightens Pressure on Romney

Tightening Arizona Race Heightens Pressure on Romney

By Erin McPike - February 22, 2012

With polls showing Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum within the margin of error of each other in Arizona and Michigan, both candidates have some tough decisions to make ahead of the states' primaries on Tuesday.

Just a few weeks ago, Romney seemed headed for big wins in both races. Now he finds himself trailing Santorum in his native Michigan, and Santorum creeping up on him in Arizona. That means the top rivals have to carefully figure out how to best divide their time and energy over the next six days.

Two polls in two days have shown Santorum pulling close to Romney in the Grand Canyon State, and the RealClearPolitics average there has Romney ahead, 38.2 percent to 30 percent.

Chad Willems, an unaffiliated GOP strategist in Arizona, said the momentum in now with the underdog. “I think that Santorum’s got a really good shot at winning on Tuesday,” he said, though noting that he’s loath to make a prediction given the volatile nature of the primary season.

Brett Mecum, another unaffiliated Republican consultant who recently served as executive director of the state GOP, described the dynamics in the race this way: “This is a continuation of the grass-roots conservative base looking for an alternative to Mitt Romney. Rick Santorum may be the last man standing.”

He added, “Nobody would have thought that this would have happened even three weeks ago.”

But Mecum cautioned that early voting started at the beginning of the month, which could be a boon to Romney, whose campaign has been working that aspect of the primary hard.

“Santorum would have to win big -- probably by eight to 10 points on Election Day -- to offset the votes Romney has already gotten,” he said.

Willems acknowledged that as a possible factor, but sees another that could trump it: He believes so many conservative Republican voters have become accustomed to the campaign’s roller-coaster nature that “they’ve decided to wait and haven’t thrown in with one candidate yet” -- including the bulk of those with early ballots.

And that’s why Wednesday night’s debate in Mesa will be critical for both candidates.

Santorum held a pair of events in the Phoenix area on Tuesday and will hold another one in Tucson on Wednesday ahead of the debate. His campaign has played down expectations in the state, focusing instead on expanding the playing field on Super Tuesday and in the Southern states that vote the week after that. He’s also pushed hard in Michigan for next week’s vote.

Romney is holding fewer events this week, but over the course of the campaign he has set foot in Arizona more often. He’s also had a staffer in the state for more than a year.

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Erin McPike is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ErinMcPike.

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