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What If Mitt Romney Loses Michigan?

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is handed mail by an aide on his campaign bus between campaign stops in Monroe, Mich., and Farmington Hills, Mich.
Gerald Herbert
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is handed mail by an aide on his campaign bus between campaign stops in Monroe, Mich., and Farmington Hills, Mich.

In the greater scheme of things, with everything else that's been going on lately, the question is not exactly apocalyptic. But for the Mitt Romney campaign, it could very well be: What if he loses the Michigan primary on Feb. 28?

With polls showing Rick Santorum suddenly becoming the Republicans' preferred choice for president, and with some even showing him taking a lead in Michigan — once thought to be safe Romney territory — the question becomes very real and very relevant.

We can talk all we want about whether or not Santorum is truly the GOP frontrunner. After all, he was pretty much a non-entity in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida. So now, on the basis of one successful day — Feb. 7, where he won all three contests in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri — he's suddenly the candidate to beat?

Which of course leads to the real issue: Romney. It's more than just what happened on Feb. 7. The hard-to-fathom vision of Santorum as the ultimate nominee — just as it was in the past with Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich — perhaps says something less about their strengths and more about Romney's weaknesses. Santorum may be, in the words of the Washington Post's Dan Balz, just, "for now, a place-holder for dissatisfaction with Romney." But that dissatisfaction is real, and every time he loses a contest — as with South Carolina on Jan. 21 and the complete shutout on Feb. 7 — it intensifies.

Here's one of the problems for Romney. If the argument against a Santorum nomination is that he has taken positions on women's rights that are well to the right of any previous Republican presidential nominee (and thus risking losing independent, let alone women's, votes in the fall), it's not one that Romney can make. If Romney is fighting to win the hearts and minds (and votes) of conservatives, he surely can't make the argument that Santorum is too far to the right to win. Romney seems to do best when he or his allies blanket the airwaves with attacks on his opponents, but hitting Santorum from the left is not a winning strategy.

Here's another problem, and it has nothing to do with Santorum. It is, once again, all about Romney. Forget Ronald Reagan. Nobody is going to be the next Reagan. (Republicans would be satisfied with another George W. Bush.) But instead, many see the former Massachusetts governor as another Bob Dole or John McCain — serviceable, reliable even. But not exciting the base. And with all those liberal positions from his previous campaigns staring everyone in the face, it remains an unknown as to whether the GOP base, in its eagerness to beat Obama, will be able to swallow their reservations and embrace Romney.

Yes, the Romney name was golden in Michigan, where George Romney was elected governor three times.  But the last one came in 1966 — some 45 years ago.
/ Ken Rudin collection
Ken Rudin collection
Yes, the Romney name was golden in Michigan, where George Romney was elected governor three times. But the last one came in 1966 — some 45 years ago.

Back to Michigan. If Romney can't win there, a primary he easily carried in 2008 and where he was born and raised and where his father served as governor throughout most of the 1960s (and where he had a two-to-one lead in the polls just a month ago), then what's the argument for his nomination? What good are the polls that show him running the strongest against President Obama in the fall if he still can't get the party to fall in line behind him? A Romney defeat will, once again, inevitably reignite the chorus calling for new candidates (Mitch Daniels! Chris Christie! Jeb Bush!) to get in the race, or predictions of a brokered convention.

And even if Romney should win Michigan? That still might not be enough. Pundits will say he was expected to triumph there. Unless he can pull off a streak of primary and caucus victories that extend beyond one or two in a row, the doubts are going to follow him after each setback, all the way to the convention and all the way to the general.

And should he lose in November? After Barry Goldwater's landslide defeat to President Johnson in 1964, moderates in the party said the election was a repudiation of right-wing extremism. There were efforts to purge conservatives out of the party. If Romney, the party's ostensible strongest candidate, loses to Obama, watch for another post-election soul searching, if not finger-pointing. This time, it will be against the establishment.

/ Ken Rudin collection
Ken Rudin collection

All in the Family. One of the more durable family dynasties in Congress has of course been the Kennedys. The 2009 death of Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and the retirement of his son, Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.), after 2010 ended that long stretch. But now another Kennedy — Joseph Kennedy III, son of former Rep. Joe Kennedy II (D-Mass.) and grandson of the late Sen. Robert Kennedy (D-N.Y.) — is hoping to come to Congress. The 31-year old former assistant district attorney has declared his candidacy for the suburban Boston seat being vacated by Barney Frank. Below, the Kennedy dynasty in Congress:

John Fitzgerald (Mass. — House 1895-1900; briefly in 1919).*

John Kennedy (Mass. — House 1947-52, Senate 1953-60).

Edward Kennedy (Mass. — Senate 1962-2009).

Robert Kennedy (N.Y. — Senate 1965-68).

Joseph Kennedy II (Mass. — House 1987-98).

Patrick Kennedy (R.I. — House 1995-2010).

*Fitzgerald, known as "Honey Fitz," also served as mayor of Boston. His daughter Rose married Joseph Kennedy in 1914. John, Robert and Edward Kennedy are among their offspring.

Other Kennedy family members who tried but failed to join this list include Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (daughter of RFK), who unsuccessfully challenged Rep. Helen Bentley (R-Md.) in 1986; Mark Kennedy Shriver (son of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, sister of JFK/RFK/EMK), who was defeated by Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) in the 2002 Democratic primary; and Caroline Kennedy (daughter of JFK), who in 2009 had hoped to be appointed to the Senate seat vacated by Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) after she was named secretary of state.

/ Ken Rudin collection
Ken Rudin collection

Friendship Heights. Monday was the 50th anniversary of John Glenn's orbits into space. On Feb. 20, 1962, Glenn, a Marine colonel, was hurtled into space in his Mercury capsule (known as "Friendship 7") and circled the Earth three times, the first American to do so. He came back to a grateful nation and a ticker-tape parade in New York. It was a big boost for the young Kennedy administration, which saw great things for Glenn's future.

Of course, not everything went so smoothly. It took Glenn two abortive bids for the Senate (a withdrawal after a fall in 1964 and a primary defeat in 1970) before finally winning in 1974. And his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination went nowhere in 1984. But in winning a total of four Senate elections, he remained popular at home and is, to this day, regarded as a true American hero.

Political Updates. I post periodic political updates during the week on Twitter. You can follow me at @kenrudin.

Political Junkie segment on Talk of the Nation. Each Wednesday at 2 p.m. ET, the Political Junkie segment appears on Talk of the Nation (NPR's call-in program), hosted by Neal Conan with me adding color commentary, where you can, sometimes, hear interesting conversation, useless trivia questions, and sparkling jokes. Last week's show, with special guest Dan Balz of the Washington Post, focused on the continuing effort by Mitt Romney to make his case with conservatives and the new threat to his nomination posed by the surge of Rick Santorum. You can listen to the segment here.

Last week's Junkie segment on TOTN

And speaking of useless trivia, no one called in with the answer to last week's question, which was: After eight contests, Santorum has won a total of just one primary. Who was the last person from Pennsylvania to win just one primary after eight contests? Well, the answer was Newt Gingrich, who was born in Harrisburg.

No winner and thus no t-shirt to be given away. I mean, rules are rules. But if there is such a thing as "honorable mention," then it's definitely this e-mail:

I feel it my obligation to identify myself as the winner of this week's trivia question by correctly answering "Newt Gingrich." However, some imagination and empathy on your part may be necessary to bestow upon me the No-Prize T-Shirt. I am a Police Officer in Nashville, TN and, unfortunately, due to the constraints of my painfully inconvenient shift, I am forced to listen to Political Junkie during repeats at 11:00PM.

Having been an 22-year native of Pennsylvania, I am well-versed in Newt's roots (alliteration intended) in Harrisburg. The moment I heard the question, I began yelling the answer at the radio as loudly as I could. It appears, however, that your staff was unable to hear me yelling from the future.

Due to the fact that there was no winner discovered on-air this week, I respectfully request that you name me the unofficial and completely illegitimate winner of this week's No Prize T-Shirt. If not for that reason, then for the reason that I almost crashed my car laughing when I heard the quip that Senator John Heinz was in a pickle.

I will undoubtedly send the obligatory photo of myself wearing my well-deserved No-Prize T-Shirt, thereby immortalizing myself in infamy on the wall of shame.

Respectfully and with great admiration for your program,

Mike Hotz

And Don't Forget ScuttleButton. ScuttleButton, America's favorite waste-of-time button puzzle, can be found in this spot every Monday. A randomly-selected winner will be announced each week during the Political Junkie segment on NPR's Talk of the Nation. It's not too late to enter last week's contest, which you can see here. Not only is there incredible joy in deciphering the answer, but the winner gets a TOTN t-shirt!

Previous winner: Michaela Tauscher of Prospect Park, Pa.

Podcast. There's also a new episode of our weekly podcast, "It's All Politics," up every Thursday. It's hosted by my partner-in-crime, Ron Elving, and me. You can listen to the latest episode here:


Feb. 22 — GOP debate, Mesa, Ariz. (CNN, 8 pm ET).

Feb. 28 — Primaries in Arizona and Michigan.

March 3 — Washington caucuses.

March 6 — SUPER TUESDAY. Primaries in Georgia, Massachusetts, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Vermont and Virginia. Caucuses in Alaska, Idaho, North Dakota and Wyoming.

March 10 — Kansas caucuses.

March 13 — Primaries in Alabama and Mississippi. Caucuses in Hawaii.

March 17 — Missouri caucuses.

March 20 — Illinois presidential and congressional primaries.

March 24 — Louisiana primary.

Mailing list. To receive a weekly email alert about the new column and ScuttleButton puzzle, contact me at politicaljunkie@npr.org.

******* Don't Forget: If you are sending in a question to be used in this column, please include your city and state. *********

/ Ken Rudin collection
Ken Rudin collection

This day in campaign history: The two Democrats seeking their party's presidential nomination, Vice President Al Gore and former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey, hold a fiercely personal debate at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. Bradley called Gore a "conservative Democrat" with suspect positions on abortion and gun control. Gore said Bradley sounded a "little desperate" in his attacks, saying the strategy was hurting Democrats when they should be focusing on the Republicans. As tough as the candidates were on each other, the audience spent much of the debate jeering and shouting out comments; several times the debate moderator, Bernard Shaw of CNN, pleaded for calm, in vain (Feb. 21, 2000).

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: politicaljunkie@npr.org

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Ken Rudin