Mitt Romney’s exhaling was almost audible on Tuesday night as he scraped through to win his home state of Michigan. Anything less would have been a disaster. After another wince-makingly inept spell of campaigning – characterised by Mr Romney’s constant tendency to remind voters of his remoteness from their concerns – anything more was always unlikely.
And thus this increasingly bad-tempered Republican primary rolls on towards next week’s Super Tuesday. Even the sagest of America’s pundits long ago gave up trying to predict each twist and turn of this Republican primary. Three weeks ago, Rick Santorum won a triple victory in a Phoenix-like return from the dead. On Tuesday night, Mr Romney won a double – Arizona by a far more comfortable margin than Michigan. Next Tuesday, when 10 states go to the polls, could send any number of mixed signals.
As the race now stands, only a few enduring observations are likely to hold. First, Mr Romney is a bad campaigner – and that seems very unlikely to change. In spite of having been pilloried for months over his great personal fortune, the former Massachusetts governor was still making gaffes that drew attention to it in the days leading up to the Michigan primary. Whether it was mentioning that his wife owned “a couple of Cadillacs” or telling Nascar fans that he knew a few team “owners”, Mr Romney is a walking Freudian slip. If he cannot stop himself by this stage, he never will.
Second, Mr Romney’s opponents are even worse. Newt Gingrich’s rocket fell back to earth in Florida when he wasted two precious days waxing and waning about his ambitions to build a lunar colony. And Mr Santorum, who at one stage was more than 10 points ahead of Mr Romney in Michigan, threw his advantage away by veering too heavily towards Christian fundamentalism. At one stage, Mr Santorum said that John F. Kennedy’s famous Houston speech in which he upheld the separation between church and state made him “want to throw up”. At another, he accused Mr Obama of being a “snob” for wanting every American high school graduate to attend college. Michigan has a lot of Catholic voters who still revere JFK. Presumably many of them would also like to see their children graduate.
Finally, it is still hard to see any other candidate getting the nomination than Mr Romney. Were a white knight alternative to have emerged, he or she would be visible by now with just a few days to go before Super Tuesday. But the big Republican names seem content to sit it out until 2016. Perhaps they should be commended for their common sense. This is a restless and unpredictable primary. The candidates are making a desert of their party and calling it peace.