Meanie Mitt Pulls Ahead

Rick Santorum's improbable moment atop the GOP field seems likely to fade away just as quickly as his anti-Romney predecessors. A pair of new numbers from Public Policy Polling point toward tomorrow being a triumphant day for Mitt Romney. The former Massachusetts governor leads by an insurmountably wide margin in Arizona. He's up 43-26 percent over Santorum, and carried early voters—which will constitute nearly half of Arizona's total vote count—by 48-25. And after trailing Santorum by as much as 15 percent three weeks ago, Romney has reopened a slight Michigan lead of 2 percent. Again, PPP found that Romney dominated early voters (62-29 over Santorum), though they represent a far smaller share of the Michigan bloc.

It looks as though Romney's negative assault on his opponents' record and character has worked yet again. Santorum's favorability numbers plummeted over the past several weeks. One week ago PPP had Santorum with a +44 net favorability in Michigan; today, that number is just +15, with 39 percent of Republican Michiganders holding negative views on Santorum. The former Pennsylvania senator hasn't done himself any favors by focusing on unpopular social cleavages during that time, but an onslaught of ads from Romney and his affiliated super PAC, Restore Our Future, have cemented a negative image for Santorum. It's the same tactic Romney and his allies used to halt Newt Gingrich's momentum with a crushing loss in Florida last month. With no debates left on the schedule before Super Tuesday, Santorum will struggle to retain any lingering momentum if he loses both Arizona and Michigan tomorrow.

The strategy looks to be enough for a Romney primary win. Romney is the most competent member of the GOP field; all he needs to worry about is sinking the perception of his opponents while trusting that voters will settle for him. Each of his Republican opponents entered the race as loosely defined characters, granting Romney the chance to build the narrative against them through his massive fundraising advantage. That method won't do him much good in the general election. Barack Obama is no mystery to voters, and the massive funds that flood into a general election will leave the two sides roughly on par. Romney has displayed a knack for tearing down his opponents during the nomination, but to defeat Obama he'll need to actually craft the narrative of his own campaign and convince the public why Romney himself deserves their votes.