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5 things we learned from Tuesday's primaries

By Mark Preston, CNN Political Director
updated 9:47 AM EST, Wed February 29, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Romney seems to have regained his self-confidence
  • Santorum might have earned as many delegates as Romney
  • Paul and Gingrich might have miscalculated by skipping Michigan
  • Grassroots activists and not party establishment are calling the shots

(CNN) -- It seems that every week, a different Republican presidential candidate has felt "Super" on a Tuesday.

Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich have all experienced that "Super" feeling of victory. Well, everyone except Ron Paul, who has yet to win a primary or a caucus in the battle for the GOP nomination.

It was Romney's turn again Tuesday, and it couldn't have come at a better time, as his electability, viability and likability were all being questioned. If Romney had lost Michigan, his electability and viability as a Republican presidential nominee would have received serious scrutiny, given that he grew up in the state.

Romney's puzzling comments on the campaign trail that appeared to flaunt his wealth would have been highlighted as a major political flaw: an inability to connect with the average American.

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However, what was being forecast as a potentially devastating night for Romney turned out to be a double victory and we learned a few things after the dust in Arizona and Michigan settled.

1. Romney's confidence: Romney thrives on self-confidence. When all pistons are firing and he is in a groove, Romney is actually a good candidate. Knock him off his game and his flaws are exposed.

On Tuesday night, we witnessed the "Confident Romney" during his victory speech in Michigan. The former Massachusetts governor was sharp, on message and delivered his remarks with confidence. He didn't couch his victory in hyperbole, he just stated a simple fact.

"We didn't win by a lot, but we won, and that's what counts," Romney told supporters. He is correct: A win is a win is a win.

I think we actually saw the "Confident Romney" earlier in the day, well before the polls closed in Arizona and Michigan. During a stop on the trail, Romney was asked if he was satisfied with how his "campaign had been run so far." Romney responded that he was "pleased" with it and did something few politicians do -- take responsibility for its missteps.

"The candidate sometimes makes some mistakes, so I'm trying to do better and work harder and make sure that we get our message across," he said.

A sign of confidence and leadership is the ability to acknowledge mistakes and personal shortcomings.

2. Delegate victories: Romney won the night, but Santorum did not lose.

The former Pennsylvania senator didn't invest any money in Arizona and spent very little time in a state that was a foregone conclusion for Romney. CNN called Arizona for Romney immediately at poll closing time. However, Santorum gave Romney a run for his money in Michigan, Romney's childhood home.

Santorum was outmatched by Romney in terms of money and resources, but he is still going to walk away with delegates. If this race is truly about collecting delegates, then Santorum scored some wins. Where Santorum did lose is that he missed a major opportunity to absolutely change the narrative of this race. Imagine if Santorum won the statewide vote in Michigan? The political landscape would be a lot different today than it was just 24 hours ago.

3. Out of sight, out of mind: It has become abundantly clear that conventional wisdom has no place in this battle for the Republican presidential nomination. Who would have predicted the rise and fall of Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Santorum and Newt Gingrich? To be accurate, it was actually the fall and rise and fall again of Gingrich.

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I don't understand the wisdom of Gingrich and Paul ceding valuable territory. Since Arizona was winner-take-all, I recognize the decision to bypass the state, but why skip Michigan?

If the race for the GOP nomination is a battle for delegates, Michigan had 30 of them on the table. Unlike Arizona, these delegates are divided up proportionally thus giving the candidates a shot at pocketing a few. Plus, the media, which has been driving the conversation in the race for the nomination, has been camped out in Michigan for more than a week. Why ignore a chance to be part of the main conversation and perhaps collect a few delegates along the way?

4. Bucking the establishment: Romney has assembled an all-star team of political operatives, who have spent several years laying the groundwork for him to win the nomination. The campaign has raised the money, created a nationwide organization and by all accounts should be walking backwards with their eyes closed towards victory.

Except, we have crossed over into a new century where grassroots activists are no longer taken for granted. Sure, there are many reasons why Romney hasn't been able to close the deal, namely his very soft support from conservatives. But instead of falling in line behind the GOP establishment, these conservative activists have looked elsewhere: Cain, Gingrich, Perry and now Santorum.

This willingness to buck the establishment in recent years is due largely to the rise of the tea party movement. No longer are orders coming down from Washington -- these grassroots activists are now empowered and arguably calling the shots. The support from these conservative activists is the only reason why Santorum had a shot at winning Michigan Tuesday night and quite frankly the only reason why he is a serious contender for the GOP nomination.

5. Democrats can't pick the nominee: It was a great storyline heading into the Michigan primary -- Democrats urging their political brethren to vote in an attempt to meddle with the GOP nomination process. Even Santorum was urging Democrats to come out to vote... for him, of course.

A driving question for a better part of Tuesday was how big would Democratic turnout be in the primary? If it was large then it could have a major impact on the race -- perhaps giving Santorum a win, and handing Romney a defeat.

But in the end, while Democratic participation might have helped decrease Romney's margin of victory (we will have to see if it really cost him a few delegates), the truth is that Democrats might have succeeded in creating a little mischief but failed in generating all-out chaos.

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