Mitt Romney's tortuous path to the Republican presidential nomination took another detour into rocky territory on Tuesday with his thin win in a contest he should by rights have owned.
Mr. Romney, who grew up in Michigan as the son of a popular three-term governor, narrowly beat Rick Santorum in the state's GOP primary. His failure to convincingly capture his home state will only intensify doubts about Mr. Romney's suitability as the party's standard-bearer for the fall election.
If he is unable to quiet those concerns with a strong showing in next week's Super Tuesday primaries, when contests will be held in 10 states, he may need more than a Hail Mary pass to become the Republican nominee. He may need a miracle.
With more than 99 per cent of Michigan votes counted, Mr. Romney led Mr. Santorum 41 per cent to 38 per cent. Ron Paul had 12 per cent of the vote, while Newt Gingrich had captured only 7 per cent.
Though Mr. Romney carried Arizona handily on Tuesday – winning 47 per cent of the vote compared to Mr. Santorum's 27 – he had little to crow about. His rivals spent little time or money in the state, since it awards all of its 29 delegates to the winner, instead of allocating them proportionally.
Mr. Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, blamed his middling performance in Michigan on Mr. Santorum's "dirty tricks." The Santorum campaign used robo-calls urging registered Democrats to vote for him in the GOP primary to punish Mr. Romney for his opposition to the government bailouts of General Motors and Chrysler.
Those calls made some difference. Democrats made up at least 10 per cent of voters in Tuesday's GOP primary and half voted for Mr. Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator.
But Mr. Romney had a bigger problem than his rival's mischief. He made a serious mistake in relentlessly attacking the bailouts in the state that benefited most from them.
And while Mr. Santorum made national headlines for warning about Satan and calling President Barack Obama a snob, he was cleverly wooing auto workers in the state that invented them.
Mr. Romney's initial 2008 bailout stand was entirely defensible. Back then, the heads of GM and Chrysler went to Washington looking for government loans. Mr. Romney countered that a stint in bankruptcy court, where their debts and union contracts could be renegotiated, should be a precondition of any government aid to the auto makers.
Unfortunately, he articulated that position in a New York Times op-ed – with the fateful headline "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt" – that has haunted him since.
GM and Chrysler were eventually forced to go through bankruptcy by Mr. Obama, vindicating Mr. Romney's approach. But with the auto industry roaring back, Mr. Romney needed to live down that headline instead of saying, "I told you so."
Curiously, he ramped up his attacks on "labour stooges" in a state where even a third of Republican voters live in union households. And Mr. Santorum won 45 per cent of their vote on Tuesday, compared to only 27 per cent for Mr. Romney.
"While a lot of workers and investors got the short end of the stick, Obama's union allies – and his major campaign contributors – reaped reward upon reward, all on the taxpayer's dime," Mr. Romney wrote in a Feb. 14 op-ed in the Detroit News.
That made him an irresistible target, and not only for his Republican rivals.
"They're saying that … you, the workers, made out like bandits in all of this, that saving the American auto industry was just about paying back unions," the President said Tuesday in a fiery speech to members of the United Auto Workers in Washington. "Really? I mean, even by the standards of this town, that's a load of you-know-what."
It is true that auto bailouts and unions are popular targets among Tea Partiers, which exist even in Michigan, one of organized labour's last U.S. holdouts. But for all his pandering, Mr. Romney managed only to tie Mr. Santorum among Tea Party supporters in the state.
In one respect, Mr. Santorum proved the moderate in the race. Though he, too, opposed the auto bailouts, he successfully portrayed himself as a champion of workers.
His campaign ran a brilliant TV ad in Michigan, with images of proud auto workers on the assembly line, reminding blue-collar voters which Republican was on their side.
Mr. Romney, the ad said, "supported the Wall Street bailouts while turning his back on Michigan. But Rick Santorum's 'Made in the USA Plan' … cuts taxes for Michigan manufacturers to zero so we can bring back American jobs from overseas."
As Michigan Republicans went to the polls on Tuesday, Mr. Romney tried to explain his failure to generate enthusiasm while his GOP rivals continue to fire up crowds.
"I'm not willing to light my hair on fire to try and get support."
Yet, that is precisely what he did with his endless attacks on the unions. And it backfired.
That will only give the Republican establishment further pause about Mr. Romney's ability to beat Mr. Obama in November. Despite having more money and advisers than all of his GOP rivals combined, he has struck one false note after another.
He may yet get the Republican nomination, by default or by miracle. But unless he starts showing some political smarts, he will not need to worry about an inauguration speech.