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Romney holds off Santorum in Michigan, easily wins Arizona

Mitt Romney comfortably won the Republican presidential primary contest in Arizona, but the former Massachusetts governor only narrowly won his home state of Michigan. NBC's Peter Alexander reports.

 

Updated 11:05 pm ET: NOVI, Mich. -- Mitt Romney won primary victories in Michigan and Arizona Tuesday night, staving off Rick Santorum in a closely-fought contest here in a state where Romney was born and raised and avoiding an embarrassing setback for his campaign.

Romney won the Michigan primary by just a few percentage points, while scoring a victory by much larger margins in Arizona.

The crowd at the Suburban Collection Showplace in suburban Detroit burst into cheers as cable news on projection screens reflected the projection in Michigan.

Romney's victory in Michigan carries symbolic importance after the contest had been transformed into a key test of his strength as the campaign's frontrunner. He'll also end up with the lion's share of delegates awarded tonight since Arizona allots its delegates on a winner-take-all basis. Romney will win two delegates statewide in Michigan, and an additional three delegates for each of the state's 14 congressional districts he wins.

Romney made sure to stress both his victories Tuesday night, thanking voters in Arizona and Michigan and calling it a “great victory.” Referring to Michigan, Romney said, “We didn’t win by a lot but we won by enough and that’s all that counts.”

Romney hit on familiar themes of restoring American greatness and his Michigan roots during his speech. But in a nod toward the changing dynamics of the race, Romney solicited donations through his website -- something he hasn't mentioned previously in similar speeches.

NBC's David Gregory and Chuck Todd parse the GOP primary results in Arizona and Michigan and look ahead to next week's Super Tuesday races.

A bigger haul of delegates are at stake in just a week, however. The Republican campaign will now move into its next pivotal stretch preceding Super Tuesday, when 10 states host primaries or caucuses.

The results follow a tumultuous three weeks that had featured both candidates fighting for momentum in the Republican nomination contest. Most of the attention was focused on Michigan, where the results could prove to be a turning point in the race. 

Romney romps among nearly all groups in Arizona primary

In Michigan, the state where Romney was born and raised and where his father served as governor, the on-again, off-again front-runner had to wage a tougher-than-expected campaign to avoid an embarrassing loss to Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator. Santorum had carried momentum into the state after sweeping a trio of mid-February nominating contests, and pointedly deciding to challenge Romney on his home turf.

Crossover Democrats overwhelmingly back Santorum

"To the people, you know we came to the backyard of one of my opponents ... and the people of Michigan looked into the hearts of the candidates, and all I have to say is, I love you back," Santorum said in remarks at his campaign night party on the western side of Michigan.

Presidential hopeful Rick Santorum falls short in Michigan and Arizona primaries but says his stances on the deficit, oil production and health care make him the best candidate to challenge President Barack Obama.

While Arizona was only lightly contested by the candidates, Michigan was a different story.

Romney had barnstormed the state in stops meant to remind voters of his roots here, and taken a newly-aggressive tack against Santorum on the campaign trail. His campaign and a supportive super PAC added support by spending over $4 million combined on advertising.

But unlike other instances in which Romney’s Republican challengers had been unable to respond, Santorum’s campaign and a similarly supportive super PAC spent over $2 million in response. The former Pennsylvania senator also aggressively went after Romney on the campaign trail, framing Romney as a poor choice for conservatives to face off against President Obama.

The primary voters in Michigan broke along familiar patterns. Voters who considered themselves just somewhat conservative, and voters who valued electability as the top characteristic in a candidate tended toward Romney. He also performed best among wealthier voters.

Santorum performed best among the most conservative voters in the GOP, and outperformed Romney among more middle-class Republicans. Union households broke for Santorum, and the Democrats who did vote in the primary -- they made up about nine percent of the electorate, according to exit polls -- favored Santorum.

The exit poll results suggested, though, that red flags continue to exist for Romney. The former Massachusetts governor still struggles in winning over the very conservative core of the Republican Party, and faces challenges in winning over GOP voters of lesser means. That latter factor does little to diminish a narrative about Romney's difficulty in connecting with voters.

A loss for Romney could have threatened to provoke new hand-wringing from the GOP’s establishment class about the viability of the former Massachusetts governor’s candidacy. Romney has long been thought of as the Republican frontrunner, but his struggles to string together wins in the primary season threaten to drag the battle for the nomination into a protracted delegate fight.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Rep. Ron Paul are poised to re-emerge as contenders in some of those Super Tuesday contests, and states like Ohio may well pose the next test of whether Romney or Santorum gain any sustained momentum out of tonight’s results.

Arizona and Michigan are both considered potential battleground states come November, and the president’s re-election campaign has acted aggressively to bracket primary results in both states this evening. The president’s campaign ran ads here in Michigan promoting the administration’s decision to assist GM and Chrysler in 2009, and Obama himself reminded the autoworkers’ union of the Republican candidates’ opposition to the bailout in a campaign-style speech today.

First Read: Is Arizona in play for Team Obama?

“And you will recall there were some politicians who said we should do that,” Obama said of many Republicans’ resistance to providing help to the troubled automakers. “Some even said we should ‘let Detroit go bankrupt.’”

Romney and Santorum each provided the Obama campaign with fodder for the general election, too, from Romney’s comments about his wife owning two Cadillacs or being friends with NASCAR team owners, to Santorum’s calling the president a “snob” for supporting a policy advocating higher education for young people.