Beating Rick Santorum by a mere 3 percentage points in his own native state, which was once governed by his automaking father, was better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. It put him back on track as the Republican frontrunner, but he will need to do the same all over again next week in the most important of 10 Super Tuesday states.
That would be Ohio, the second-largest car manufacturer after Michigan, and it offers Mr. Romney none of the family roots of its neighbor state. It presents many of the same hurdles for him, such as the successful auto bailout by Uncle Sam that he opposed but that has saved many assembly-line jobs of Ohio workers.
Still ringing in Ohioan ears will be the latest Romney gaffes that reminded folks once more of how he is better than they are, at least materially. Such as how his wife, Ann, drives not a tiny Rambler like his old man used to make but two Cadillacs. And how he has friends who own NASCAR racing teams, not simply root for them as average Ohioans do.
These apparently unwitting attempts by Mr. Romney to come off as one of the guys only magnify the space between the world in which he lives and the one experienced by those he professes to understand, and intends to lift from their economic doldrums.
In Ohio, he again will face the opportunistic Mr. Santorum, who sells himself as the authentic son of neighboring blue-collar western Pennsylvania, struggling to revive its old manufacturing base. Mr. Santorum talks himself up as grandson of a coal miner rather than the son of a college-bred psychologist, even as he bashes "elites" for favoring a college education over manual labor for their kids.
To Mr. Romney's advantage, the primaries in Michigan and Arizona (which he also won) demonstrated that Mr. Santorum also is capable of verbal self-immolation. The humility and restraint that served him well when he was a little-noticed asterisk in the early going has vanished. It has been replaced by an arrogant and sneering persona, contemptuous of the views and values of all who disagree with him.
In Mr. Santorum's zeal to defend his focus on the roles of family and faith in politics, he unwisely reduced himself to mocking John F. Kennedy's famous 1960 defense of the separation of church and state, saying his speech to Houston ministers "made me want to throw up." And in calling President Barack Obama "a snob" for advocating the opportunity of college for all Americans, Mr. Santorum brought back the angry and ugly Rick Santorum of his Senate days.
The real political loser in all of this is not simply Mr. Romney or Mr. Santorum but the Republican Party as a whole, already portrayed by the marathon of televised debates as leaderless and bogged down in petty squabbles. One Romney rival after another has tried to block his way to the nomination, succeeding only in prolonging the process.
Previously front-running Newt Gingrich, given new life by his primary victory in South Carolina, only to falter, will be looking for another resurrection in Georgia, the state he represented in Congress, on Super Tuesday. He also will contest the primaries in Tennessee and Oklahoma as the only Southern candidate still standing. This time around, however, any Gingrich success will probably come at the expense of Mr. Santorum, not Mr. Romney, and cast the former House speaker as a spoiler despite his grandiose ideas and insistence he still will be the nominee.
Meanwhile, libertarian crusader Ron Paul will be looking for his first 2012 victory in caucuses in Washington on Saturday and in Alaska, Idaho, North Dakota and Wyoming and in the Virginia primary on Tuesday, where he will go one-one against Mr. Romney. But what happens in Ohio will likely be the key to how much longer this Republican demolition derby will go on.