The Crux of the Matter in Michigan

The new PPP numbers from Michigan reinforce the phenomenon I discussed earlier today: Rick Santorum is harvesting momentum from a great Tuesday night and some mutually assured destruction between Romney and Gingrich to move well ahead in state thought to be a stronghold for Mitt. But Republican elites are certain to be privately beside themselves at the thought of a guy like Ricky–who sometimes seems as determined to repeal the Second Vatican Council as the New Deal–going up against Barack Obama.

In MI, as nationally, PPP finds Gingrich’s favorability ratios cratering (at 38/47) and Romney’s foundering (at 49/39, a vast deterioration in this state from earlier readings), even as Santorum’s stay all clean and starchy (at 67/23). As Tom Jensen’s analysis aptly notes:

This situation is reminiscent of what happened in Florida right after Newt Gingrich’s big win in South Carolina- he took the lead then quickly lost it in a big way after coming under attack by Romney.

But there’s the rub: will Mitt be willing to go after Ricky the way he did Newt in Florida, at the risk of boosting his own rising negatives? And will the conservative opinion-leaders who were his avid allies in the destruction of Gingrich join in again (very unlikely) or even look aside?

You have to figure the prevailing sentiment in elite GOP circles is that they’d love to see Ricky succumb to foul play, but don’t want their own, or even Mitt’s, fingerprints on the weapon. But there’s not a lot of time for dithering or scruples or wishing and hoping Ricky does himself in: a double Santorum win in MI and AZ on February 28 would be a serious problem for Romney, and for the party. I’m not privy to the internal councils of Republicans, but it’s likely they are waking up to this reality, and will ultimately either unleash Mitt to go hog-wild-negative, or push enough money in his direction to saturate media in these two states with enough positive propaganda to nominate the Infernal Prince of Darkness himself (so long as he promised to cut taxes, bash unions and oppose legalized abortion).

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.