The battle of Michigan
Today's primary votes in Michigan and Arizona seem likely to drive the internal acrimony and recrimination among Republicans to new heights. It's now basically a two-man race between Romney and Santorum (though Gingrich is still glowering darkly from just over the southern horizon, plotting a Super Tuesday come-back). "Rombots" denounce Santorum as a fanatic, a Washington insider, and a liberal, and his voters as anti-Mormon bigots; "ABR" ("anyone but Romney") voters denounce Romney as a phony, an establishment tool, and a liberal. Yes, Romney and Santorum are "liberals". This name-calling is getting pretty ugly.
Arizona looks like a likely Romney win, but polls have Michigan too close to call. If Romney loses Michigan, where he was born and where his father was Governor, it will be a severe blow to his credibility -- and to his hopes of winning the demographically-similar and even more crucial state of Ohio.
Santorum seems to worry about the Devil a lot, but lately "Rombots" feel that he himself is the one doing a deal with the Devil, as his PAC robocalls Michigan Democrats urging them to vote for him in the Republican primary (it's an open primary, so non-Republicans can vote in it) to punish Romney for opposing the auto-industry bail-out (the call doesn't mention that Santorum also opposed it). If Democratic cross-over votes do give Santorum a win in Michigan, Romneyites will likely blame not "Operation Hilarity" but Santorum himself, further deepening the split between Republicans.
As an example of the level of acrimony that has developed, see the comment thread here, especially the later three-quarters or so. Comments 78, 105, 106, 108, and 220 especially interested me; last year I speculated that Romney's candidacy would trigger a wave of anti-Mormon feeling among the fundamentalist base, which could in turn alienate Mormons from the Republican party. Maybe it's really happening.
How much harm will all this internal squabbling really do to the Republicans? Some point out that the Democrats had a bitter contest in 2008 and their nominee still won big. But that election was held in the wake of the disastrous Bush Presidency and an economic collapse; it brought in the biggest Democratic Congressional majorities in generations. The Democratic Presidential candidate should have had a landslide. Who's to say that Obama (or Hillary) wouldn't have won even bigger without the divisive primary fight? And our 2008 primary battle never turned into a fight over religion, as theirs now is clearly doing (in the modern Republican party, religion permeates everything) -- and religious conflicts are notoriously bitter and intractable.
The people fighting these battles on the net are, of course, political junkies; the average Republican is probably not so engaged. But acrimony among a small core of politically-active Republicans still matters. A few percent of voters disaffected could still flip a few close states in November.
Then there's the harm the candidates are doing each other in the eyes of the general electorate. Romney's favorable/unfavorable ratings are being driven into Gingrich-like territory.
Even if Romney wins Michigan today, it will be hard to restore his aura of inevitability and re-unify the party. ABRs may take another look at Gingrich, who faces more favorable (Southern) turf in next week's primaries. And if Santorum wins, the infighting will just get worse. Either way, it promises to be quite a show.
Update (Wednesday the 29th): So Romney wins Michigan, and Santorum is damaged goods for his "deal with the Devil" -- and the ABRs still need somewhere to go. I'll be watching for a Gingrich resurgence on March 6.