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The next GOP contest in the Presidential Candidate selection process is tonight. We will have live coverage from NPR streamed live on KUNC.org from 7-9pm (9-10pm ET). This special section collects all of our stories on these primaries.

Santorum & Co. Left To Mourn What Might Have Been In Michigan

Rick Santorum and his campaign will likely look back on Michigan's 2012 primary not only as a heartbreaking loss in the battle against Mitt Romney but also as a historic lost opportunity.

The upstart former senator from Pennsylvania was within a few percentage points of toppling the wobbly frontrunner in a state that really mattered.

Unlike his earlier wins in caucus states (Iowa, Colorado, Minnesota) and a nonbinding "beauty contest" (Missouri), a win in Michigan meant a real cache of committed delegates.

Moreover, as Romney's native state and home of his political clan, Michigan had been a cornerstone of his inevitability narrative. To lose it was unthinkable, but how much worse to lose it to Santorum — an also-ran ignored by rivals and reporters alike for months?

The entire political industry had been poised for weeks for a Santorum breakthrough in Michigan, not quite believing it could happen but believing the polls that said it could. Even after a disappointing debate performance on Feb. 22 and a series of unforced errors, Santorum remained in close contention in Michigan. A win for him there would have transformed the conversation about this nomination. It is possible Romney would not have recovered.

But that was not to be. In his zeal, Santorum dissed JFK's legendary 1960 speech on religion and called President Obama a "snob" for talking up college education. He also continued to pursue the issue of birth control and government, making his point about religious liberty but also highlighting his own traditional ideas about contraception.

How much did these issues matter? In Michigan, Santorum nearly matched Romney vote for vote among men. But he lost by 5 percentage points among women. In the end, he lost the state by 3 percentage points.

Did he get the message? You only had to hear his concession speech, in which he lavished praise on his wife and his college-educated mother, who made more than his dad. The word contraception did not feature in his lengthy remarks.

This was not the first time this season that Santorum has blown a chance to turn the tide. In Iowa, he finished in a dead heat with Romney (a later count showed he had actually won by a handful of votes) but was unable to capitalize on that win a week later in New Hampshire (he finished fifth with less than 10 percent).

He got the endorsement of a key group of evangelical heavyweights, who voted for him overwhelmingly at a mid-January meeting in Texas. Yet he made almost no use of their effort in losing South Carolina, where he came in a distant third.

The news that Santorum had actually won the Iowa caucus on Jan. 3 was bad news for Romney. But it never really gave Santorum much of a lift.

All that seemed to change on Feb. 7, when Santorum won the caucuses in Colorado and Minnesota and the nonbinding primary in Missouri. On the strength of this showing on "Trifecta Tuesday," Santorum eclipsed Newt Gingrich as the leading anti-Romney candidate.

Michigan gave him a perfect opening to make good on that placement. But as soon as the path became clear, Santorum seemed to wander off.

The irony is that Santorum may still claim a share of the victory in Michigan. The delegates there are being allocated almost entirely by congressional district. So even in losing the statewide vote, Santorum could win narrow victories in seven or eight of the 14 congressional districts. If he does, he will have no worse than a tie in delegates won.

But it will not matter so much once the cameras have moved on. What Santorum lost, one more time, was the chance to throw a knockout punch and have it land on Romney's big glass jaw.

If Romney finally steadies himself and carries his reluctant Republican Party to victory in November, many will marvel at how close his candidacy came to collapse in February.

Conversely, if the Rick Santorum phenomenon fades or falls apart in the weeks and months ahead, few may recall how close he came to knocking Romney off.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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  • Rick Santorum gave a speech to his supporters at the Amway Grand Hotel in Grand Rapids. He said his campaign put up a good fight in his opponent's backyard. "The people of Michigan looked into the hearts of the candidates in Michigan, and all I have to say is I love them back," said Santorum. NPR's Don Gonyea characterized the speech as a concession speech even though he didn't formally congratulate his opponent in the speech. Santorum could pick up Michigan delegates depending on how votes in Michigan's 14 congressional districts shake out. Santorum spent part of the speech talking about energy and how President Obama is keeping a lid on traditional energy exploration in the U.S. to the detriment of the economy. We'll have more later from MPRN's Rick Pluta.
  • As predicted, Mitt Romney has won the Arizona primary. From the New York Times: Mitt Romney has won the Republican presidential primary in Arizona, based on preliminary exit polling, but is locked in a tight battle with Rick Santorum in Michigan, a crucial electoral battleground where Mr. Romney's home-town advantage has all-but evaporated. Mr. Romney's victory in Arizona will earn him 29 delegates, extending the lead he already enjoys over his rivals. The win comes after his rivals largely conceded that the former Massachusetts governor would win the border state. The race is Michigan, also as predicted, is neck and neck.