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Has Romney Finally Put Republican Elites at Ease?

Mitt Romney—and, for the moment at least, the Republican Party—dodged a bullet tonight as he narrowly won his native state. Of course, it shouldn’t be an afterthought that he also won Arizona by a landslide, capturing all the 29 delegates it’s rewarding this year. The last few days, though, were filled with growing talk in Republican insider-dom that a Romney loss in Michigan would provoke a serious search for a late-entry candidate. And whether or not these would-be kingmakers actually did come up with a White Knight willing to take the plunge, the discussion alone could have been fatal to the inevitablilty/electability house of cards on which Romney’s campaign relies. Now Romney is back on track for the nomination, for the fourth time by my count. But he’s not out of the woods quite yet, unless Rick Santorum handles his loss poorly or begins to lose his financial backing.

Next week’s ten Super Tuesday contests remain a bit of a trap for Romney. He should win easily in his home state of Massachusetts, and will only face Ron Paul in Virginia. But in Ohio, Santorum has built a robust and steady lead in recent polls. And in the South, where Newt Gingrich remains a threat, his super PAC seems to be spending its latest infusion of money from Sheldon Adelson on strident anti-Romney attacks ads rather than any effort to  hold off Santorum. Romney’s biggest threat is if, as with the Arizona/Michigan primaries, all the media attention focuses on the competitive states rather than total delegates: He could win a plurality of delegates on Super Tuesday but still “lose” in media perceptions if he falls short in  Ohio and the contested southern states. If Romney does lose significant states on Super Tuesday, the most significant factor will be whether the GOP elites panic like they did after Santorum’s three-state sweep on February 7 and his subsequent rise in the polls—or if, instead, insiders begin to look at cumulative delegate totals, bank balances, and the declining feasibility of a late entry and figure that Mitt is “inevitable” again.

Is there anything in the pattern of votes last night that illustrates the likely direction of public opinion in the GOP electorate? It’s hard to say, particularly since the Michigan vote was skewed by Romney’s native-state status—and Santorum’s sizable crossover vote, some of which was clearly tactical. (According to the exit polls, Santorum beat Romney 53-17 among the 9 percent of primary voters self-identifying as Democrats, and ran just behind Mitt among the 39 percent calling themselves “moderates or liberals.”) But one distress signal for Santorum is that he lost among his fellow Catholics in Michigan, which some pundits are already attributing to his ill-advised criticism of John F. Kennedy’s position on church-state relations.

Expect an unusually intense spin cycle over the next 48 hours over these results. Aside from polls (both national and of the March 6 states), there is actually another contest prior to Super Tuesday: a caucus-with-straw-poll in Washington state on March 3. There’s also a just-announced candidate “forum” (the format is unclear) that same evening on Mike Huckabee’s Fox News show; Romney, Santorum and Gingrich have agreed to attend (no word yet on Ron Paul). A Public Policy Polling survey on February 21 showed Santorum with a healthy lead over Romney in Washington, with Paul running a relatively strong third. Don’t be surprised if whoever wins there calls it a harbinger for Super Tuesday.

So what can we learn from last night’s results? Romney’s wins banished the wolf from his door, and he again seems the likeliest nominee. It didn’t hurt that he won two major states despite a universally panned series of campaign gaffes (such as his Cadillac count) and mistakes (notably his decision to deliver a major speech at a nearly empty Ford Field). But he’ll only be free of the wolf entirely if he can win a series of primaries without another unexpected setback, and reassure his elite supporters that he won’t limp into the end of the campaign trail still begging the GOP’s conservative base that they can trust him to take on Barack Obama with the savagery and ideological rigor they demand.

Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic, a blogger for The Washington Monthly, and managing editor of The Democratic Strategist.