At a certain level, it's hard to see how Tuesday could have gone much better for Mitt Romney. After a few very rough weeks and surprising setbacks, the former governor cruised to an easy win in Arizona's primary, and hung on to win in Michigan, preventing panic and chaos within the Republican Party ranks.
And yet, as the dust settles, Romney and his supporters appear more relieved than satisfied. There's a good reason for that.
It's easy to forget, but as recently as three months ago, Romney led Rick Santorum in Michigan by 32 points. As recently as one month ago, a statewide poll in Michigan showed Santorum running fourth, barely reaching double digits. In the ensuing weeks, Santorum condemned prenatal care, denounced higher education, said JFK's commitment to religious liberty makes him want to vomit, and saw reports surface that he argued Satan had pushed mainline Protestantism out of the realm of Christianity.
What's more, Romney outspent Santorum in Michigan -- a state where Romney was born and where his father was governor -- by nearly a two-to-one margin.
And Romney still only beat Santorum by three points. The sports cliche "a win is a win" is being bandied about, but so is the phrase "winning ugly." Only Mitt Romney can win two major contests and reclaim the momentum in the race, and somehow look worse anyway.
That said, at this point, Romney can at least credibly claim his campaign has regained its footing and has survived a tumultuous stretch. Indeed, there's renewed talk this morning about Romney regaining the "frontrunner" status that was in question after Santorum's wins in Colorado and Minnesota.
But I think those predicting a longer slog are on safer ground. Romney is no longer flailing, but the process has done considerable damage to his standing -- among Republicans and the general electoral alike -- and the road ahead is hardly without hurdles.
The state of Washington will hold its caucuses on Saturday, and Santorum is expected to do quite well. Super Tuesday is early next week, and while Romney had hoped to have the GOP nomination wrapped up by this point, in Tuesday's four biggest contests -- Georgia, Ohio, Tennessee, and Oklahoma -- Romney isn't favored to win any of them.
The race, in other words, is unlikely to end anytime soon, much to the consternation of the Republican establishment.