Mitt Romney's victories in Arizona and Michigan put him back in the lead position for Super Tuesday and the slow, sometimes painful march toward the Republican National Convention in Tampa.
Though much attention was paid to Michigan, Romney's commanding win in Arizona came with the winner-take-all prize of 29 delegates and bragging rights in a conservative state.
But challenges remain as the busy March primary season begins, and they were apparent as the results from Tuesday became clearer. Romney won the popular vote in Michigan, but he and Santorum split the 30 delegates there. A tie is how Santorum cast it Wednesday, eager to avoid another situation like the Iowa caucuses where Romney was prematurely declared the winner.
"If Romney was able to outspend us by as large a margin as he did in his home state . . . I don't know how you look at this as anything but a strong showing for Rick Santorum and somewhat of a disaster for Mitt Romney," said John Brabender, the campaign's senior adviser.
Whatever the case, Tuesday hammered home how different the landscape has become since the Jan. 31 primary in Florida, where it once appeared Romney would seal the deal. Here are five things we've learned since then:
1 Romney's problem is real but not fatal.
Romney spared himself a calamity by winning Michigan. But only three points separated him and Santorum in a state Romney was born in, raised in, and had better organization. The struggle was another reminder that Romney suffers from an energy deficit among the Republican electorate.
Exit polls show Santorum, who made a big push on social issues, captured voters who strongly identified as conservatives. A long battle can make a candidate stronger (witness the 2008 Democratic primary). In this case, though, it has only weakened Romney. But his faults are not fatal.
Like he did in Florida after a humiliating loss to Newt Gingrich in South Carolina, Romney demonstrated in Michigan that he can win when it counts. He blunted the Santorum surge and quieted, for now, concerns among the GOP.
2 Super Tuesday won't settle this race.
Romney was supposed to have effectively wrapped up the nomination by now, spending his energy on President Barack Obama with a united GOP behind him. Exit polls have generally shown voters agree he is best to take on Obama, but Romney is going to have to work harder. Super Tuesday, when 10 states vote and award more than 400 delegates on March 6, will not likely settle the race.
Santorum is doing well in delegate-rich Ohio and is ahead in Tennessee. The favorite in Georgia is hometown son Gingrich. Oklahoma is another battleground. Romney should win in Virginia, where only he and Ron Paul are on the ballot, as well as Massachusetts and Vermont.
But 1,144 delegates are needed to secure the nomination and even by exceeding expectations on Super Tuesday, Romney has to keep going. His campaign recently acknowledged this, saying the race will extend to at least mid May.
3 Santorum blew his big chance.
Santorum began the month looking like a conservative white knight. Then he opened his mouth. He fumbled his answers in the last debate and made himself look like a Washington insider. Then he produced some head-shaking detours. Santorum blasted Obama's call for more young people to attend college, saying he was a "snob." He said John F. Kennedy's 1960 speech on the separation of church and state made him want to "throw up." Santorum's support among women also fell with his strident talk on birth control. Santorum is still in the game, but he blew his big opportunity.
4 Romney, the rich guy, needs money.
During an otherwise strong election night speech in Michigan, Romney made an appeal for TV viewers to visit his website and contribute money. From anyone else, it would be unremarkable. But from Romney, it showed the protracted delegate fight and challenges from an array of rivals have taken a toll.
Romney never built the strong grass roots network needed to pull waves of small dollar donations, instead relying on wealthy donors. And of his donors, 66 percent have reached the maximum $2,500 for the primary according to the Campaign Finance Institute compared with 18 percent for Santorum and 17 percent for Gingrich. The Romney campaign told the Wall Street Journal that it was seeing an infusion of fresh cash from donors who had planned to wait until the general election or those worried about Santorum becoming the nominee. Romney continues to outraise the competition but his burn rate has grown considerably. In January, he raised $6.5 million but spent $18.8 million.
5 Paul and Gingrich are distractions.
Paul and Gingrich, who did not compete in Arizona or Michigan, increasingly look like afterthoughts, albeit ones that can cause trouble.
Gingrich is banking on Georgia, but even if he wins his home state, he's still got a hard argument to make that he's a viable contender. By sticking in the race he has the effect of helping Romney, taking away some votes that would go to Santorum. Paul has yet to win a contest but pledges to continue. Still, his resolve does nothing to change the narrative that the race is down to Romney versus Santorum.