Mitt Romney has scored a double victory in the latest US presidential Republican primaries, but only after a tight race with main rival Rick Santorum in Michigan.
Romney's narrow in his native Michigan, however, will do little to dispel the doubts about his ability to rally the party's conservative base and take the US presidency from incumbent Barack Obama.
"Wow! What a night," an obviously relieved Romney told cheering supporters at his state campaign headquarters in Novi, Michigan. "We didn't win by a lot but we won by enough and that's all that counts."
Santorum, who is still riding high on momentum gained from primary wins in Missouri, Minnesota and Colorado on February 7, also highlighted the closeness of the race.
"A month ago they didn't know who we are but they do now," Santorum told supporters after the results were announced. "We came into the backyard of one of my opponents in a race that everyone said, well, just ignore it, you have really no chance here," Santorum said.
Victory for Romney gives him all 29 of the Michigan's delegates in the electoral college.
Comfortable Arizona win
Romney, the long-time frontrunner in the race to challenge Obama in November's presidential election, was a more comfortable winner in Arizona, where he was ahead of Santorum by a margin of 43 per cent to 28 per cent.
The vote in Michigan had threatened to turn into an embarrassing defeat for Romney, who was born and raised there and is the son of a popular governor of the state, in the face of Santorum's re-energised campaign that has transformed him into the standard bearer for the Republicans' socially conservative religious right.
In a state with over nine per cent unemployment Romney's wealth and referencing of luxury Cadillac automobiles had made him a hard sell.
Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul are also still in the race for the nomination, although neither campaigned hard in Michigan or Arizona in a battle which Al Jazeera's Alan Fisher said had become a "battle for the soul of the Republican party".
The candidates now look forward to "Super Tuesday" on March 6, when 10 states hold nominating contests.
Santorum had made himself competitive in Michigan by pressing his conservative views on social issues and by spreading a blue-collar message about the need to rebuild the manufacturing base in the hard-hit Midwestern state.
An unpredictable factor in Michigan was the ability of Democrats to vote in the Republican primary and try to thwart
Romney by voting for Santorum, who many see as having little chance of defeating incumbent Barack Obama in the November 6 election should he become the Republican nominee.
The Santorum campaign tried to encourage the crossover vote with a "robocall", urging Democrats to send a message to Romney because of his opposition to 2009 auto bailouts that kept thousands of Michigan workers employed.
The effort was quickly condemned by the Romney campaign as a sign that Santorum "is now willing to wear the other team's jersey if he thinks it will get him more votes".
Romney has been hammering home his view that his experience as a private equity executive and former state governor makes him the best candidate to defeat Obama and lead the US economy back to strong job growth. He has also been sharply critical of Santorum.
"I've spent 25 years in business," Romney said. "I understand why jobs go, why they come. I understand what happens to corporate profit, where it goes if the government takes it."
"This is what I've done for all my life. Senator Santorum is a nice guy, but he's never had a job in the private sector."
Appearing on the Fox News Channel, Romney said he didn't think Republicans "want to nominate an economic lightweight to go up against the president, who also is an economic lightweight".
All four remaining candidates in the race for the Republican nomination - including former House speaker Newt Gingrich and congressman Ron Paul of Texas - have vowed not to drop out until the Republican national convention in late August, where a result might have to be brokered behind the scenes if no one reaches the magic number of 1,144 delegates.
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|Timothy V. Gatto|