Poll: Hey, Romney still leads in Arizona -- by three

I keep thinking that while the commentariat buzzes about Santorum’s surge, the Romney Super PAC death star is quietly moving into position. They nuked Newt with nearly $14 million in mostly negative ads in January; surely, surely, there’s a plan to turn Planet Sweater Vest into Alderaan before Arizona and Michigan vote.

Getting kind of late, though, no? Just eight days until the ultimate Romney Gut Check.

The Republican race for President in Arizona looks like a close one, with Mitt Romney leading Rick Santorum only 36-33. Newt Gingrich is third at 16% and Ron Paul fourth at 9%.

Santorum is better liked by Arizona Republicans than Romney, but the gap isn’t as wide as we’re finding in a lot of other states. Santorum’s at +34 (61/27), while Romney’s at +24 (58/34).

One thing to keep an eye on over the next week is whether Newt Gingrich can hold his support. 16% is pretty good for him compared to what we’re finding other places right now, but only 46% of his voters say they’re solidly committed to him. 40% of his supporters say that Santorum is their second choice, compared to only 25% for Romney. If Gingrich’s supporters see he’s not viable and decide to jump ship the race could get even closer.

If you’re thinking this poll is good news for Romney, have a look at the trendlines in Arizona. Except for a fleeting moment during Newt’s first surge in November, Mitt’s been the leader in Arizona literally for years. Less than three weeks ago, in fact, he was up by 24. Now he’s on the cusp of sliding into second just days before the vote. McCain’s endorsement appears to be doing nothing for him — go figure — but PPP notes that Joe Arpaio and/or Jan Brewer are well liked and could make a difference if they pick a side. Romney must be working desperately behind the scenes to get them on board: Their support might not be worth many points to him but it could be hugely importantly to Santorum as a signal that influential Arizona pols no longer see Romney as inevitable head to head with RS. And needless to say, Mitt getting swept in Michigan and Arizona would make for catastrophic headlines the following day. Losing his home state would be hard enough to spin, but getting wiped out by Santorum on a day of multistate voting for the second time in a month? That could blow up the death star.

And yet … they’re not worried.

And while Eric Fehrnstrom, a top Romney aide, publicly rejected the notion on Monday that Michigan is a “must-win” primary for the candidate, another campaign advisor told BuzzFeed they’re not worried about the polls that show them trailing in the state.

“Obviously, the other contests demonstrated that polls from a week, or two weeks out from decision day aren’t predictive of an eventual outcome,” said the advisor. “Once a message and resources are concentrated in a state and you ask Republicans to make a choice, the numbers tend to move.”…

The campaign has good reason to be skeptical of the media’s recent narrative of doom for Romney. A week ago, the worst poll for Romney, done by Public Policy Polling, had him down 15 points to Rick Santorum in Michigan. Today, after adjusting its initial, less-than-realistic turnout projections, the same polling company has Romney down just four points. And given that Romney’s ads just went on the air in the middle of last week, there’s still plenty of time for his message to sink in and get him over the hump.

Translation: Yes, eight days is plenty of time for the death star to fire. As a gloss on that, go read this short but incisive Walter Shapiro piece explaining Romney’s unusual campaign dilemma. Typically when a viable presidential contender gets in trouble on the trail, he/she can regroup through personal charm, ideological bona fides, and/or savvy messaging. Romney has none of those things in strong supply; he’s viable mainly because his campaign’s good at making everyone else in the field seem less viable, as this hugely depressing graphic vividly demonstrates. It’s taken for granted that fear and loathing of Hopenchange will turn conservatives out in droves in November no matter who the nominee is, but nominating Mitt will be a fascinating test of that theory, especially if the economy continues to improve. Will righties scramble to elect a guy for whom there’s no real affirmative argument? Stay tuned!

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