On February 28, 1968, a Republican presidential prospect who just months earlier had led in the polls, announced that he was withdrawing from the competition.
George Romney—the governor of Michigan whom many Republicans had seen as the great hope for renewing the party in the aftermath of the sweeping rebuke the party had received after nominating right-winger Barry Goldwater for the presidency in 1964—had suffered a series of self-inflicted wounds to his candidacy and on that late February day he accepted that he was not going to be the Republican nominee or the president of the United States.
Forty-four years to the day after George Romney quit the national stage, his son, Willard Mitt Romney, could face a similar moment.
On February 28, 2012, when Michigan and Arizona vote in what have become critical GOP primaries, another Romney’s fate will be at stake. Both Michigan and Arizona are battleground states where the former governor of Massachusetts was presumed to have the advantage just weeks ago. But, now, both are states where he is at the very least vulnerable to the surging conservative candidacy of former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum.
Mitt Romney is not out of the running. Not by a long shot. He still has more money than Santorum will ever collect, much of it socked away in the accounts of Super PACs that are more than ready to go for the political jugular with the crudest attack ads. There is no question that Santorum, despite his recent shows of strength, remains a gaffe-prone contender. He’s struggling to stand up to the scrutiny that he is getting, and he’s not making things easier for himself by going deeper into the weeds with a steady stream of statements about “good-and-evil” that unsettle mainstream voters.
When all is said and done, there is a fair chance that Romney will wins either Arizona or Michigan. And he could win both, thanks in no small part to the continuing candidacy of Newt Gingrich, who draws off as much as 15 percent of the vote—largely older social and economic conservatives—that would likely go to Santorum if the former House Speaker were out of the race.
But Santorum has an advantage that ought not be underestimated. He is not Mitt Romney. And if there is one constant in the 2012 GOP presidential race it is that the party faithful do not like Mitt Romney.
If voters in Michigan and Arizona reject Romney—and this really has to happen in both states for a knockout blow to be delivered—then February 28 will be another dark day for the Romney family.
The likelihood is that Mitt Romney would soldier on toward the “Super Tuesday” primaries of a week later, hoping that his prospects might be renewed.
But if he loses Michigan and Arizona on the 28th, it will be Santorum who has the momentum. And the end of Romney’s candidacy, whenever it might come, will arguably be the darkest day politically for the Romneys in forty-four years.
So it is that we reach a make or break point for the Republican who Republicans do not like.
Mitt Romney has to win at least one state on the 28th, and arguably both, if he does not want to be the George Romney of the 2012 race.