Days away from a must-win primary in his home state of Michigan, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney did not turn in a strong enough performance during the Republican presidential debate Wednesday to sway the vote, according to noted pollster Scott Rasmussen.
“The key thing that we’re looking at right now is who’s going to win Michigan next week,” Rasmussen told Newsmax in an exclusive interview on Thursday.
“The latest polls show it’s virtually tie and if there’s even a slight swing that helps Rick Santorum or helps Mitt Romney that will have a huge impact in the race — more than awarding debating points for last night.”
According to the latest Real Clear Politics average, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum has 33.8 percent support compared with 33.2 percent for Romney in Michigran.
Rasmussen, a best-selling author and founder and president of Rasmussen Reports said that, although none of the candidates emerged as a clear winner in the Arizona debate — the last before Tuesday’s contests in Michigan and Arizona — former House Speaker Newt Gingrich appeared to do very well.
“He looked comfortable. He was able to refocus a little bit of the attention on president Obama a few times, something the other candidates didn’t do very well,” said Rasmussen, who described the debate overall as “pretty depressing.”
Rasmussen, who also is co-founder of the sports network ESPN, said it’s hard to see Santorum losing Michigan and winning Arizona.
“It would be a surprise for me if Rick Santorum won Arizona and lost Michigan,” Rasmussen said. “It’s quite possible that he could win Michigan and lose Arizona.”
Although Romney has already scored victories in New Hampshire, Florida, and Nevada, his entire campaign could be threatened by a poor performance in Michigan, Rasmussen said.
“I think it all hinges on Michigan,” Rasmussen declared. “If Gov. Romney loses Michigan, his campaign is in serious trouble, and it’s partly because it’s his home state. That’s a little bit overrated. It’s partly because this is not a surprise.”
Although Santorum’s triple-play of victories in Missouri, Colorado, and Minnesota caught everyone by surprise, Romney has had much more time to prepare for his home-state showdown, Rasmussen said.
“We’ve been talking about Michigan for a long time,” he said. “If the Romney campaign can’t figure out a way to win this, it raises larger questions about them.”
Romney probably will gain an advantage from a stronger organization and the ability to outspend Santorum in the final days leading up to the Michigan vote, but many Republican voters are still reluctant to embrace his candidacy, Rasmussen said.
“We don’t know how strong the reluctance is to embrace Gov. Romney,” said Rasmussen, whose organization will be conducting a new poll tonight in Michigan. “That has been the story of the Republican race throughout this process and it continues to be the story today.”
While Rasmussen’s latest polling data shows President Barack Obama leading both Santorum and Romney in head-to-head matchups, the pollster does not believe that the bitter GOP nomination battle has diminished Republican electability overall.
“My belief is that the president is doing better in those polls right now because perceptions of the economy are stronger than they were a few months ago,” explained Rasmussen. “If perceptions of the economy keep improving, it doesn’t matter what the Republicans do. If perceptions of the economy begin to sink a little bit, President Obama’s numbers will sink with them.”
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