Cautious confidence, and some exuberance, at Romney’s election night rally: Scenes from the Michigan and Arizona primaries

NOVI, Mich.—From far away, it looked like an overzealous Jazzercise class. There was leaping and whooping and what looked like efforts, as some might say, to "raise the roof"--and this was almost two hours before Mitt Romney was set to take the stage at his Michigan election night rally.

Fueled by a soundtrack that was part Dirty Dancing soundtrack ("Do You Love Me?" by The Contours) and half Kiss ("Detroit Rock City," among others), Miles Romney, the candidate's third cousin, and a group of other Romney family and friends whooped and leaped in front of the candidate's lectern as soon as election results from Arizona and Michigan began rolling in.

This sort of energy had been largely absent in recent days at Romney rallies, where the candidate and his staff looked stressed and worn as they worked to win this crucial state.

When Arizona was called for Romney, Ron Kaufman, one of the candidate's closest advisers, came into the press filing room, a huge smile on his face. "Start writing! Start writing!" he joked.

Throughout the night, more and more Romney aides filed into the room, looking more and more relived as results rolled in. The early spin—later echoed by a beaming Romney on stage—was that Michigan was a come-from-behind victory for the former Massachusetts governor, and a sign that momentum had yet again swung their way.

But in contrast to previous election victories, when the Romney campaign team seemed to believe the nomination might be in their hands, there was no sign of overconfidence. Aides, as the candidate himself had done earlier in the day, warned that the race is far from over.

On stage, Romney was happy, but not too happy. "We didn't win by a lot, but we won by enough, and that's all that counts," he said, to a cheering crowd—including his family, who were still leaped and danced, right in the front row.

--Holly Bailey, 11:18 p.m. ET

PHOENIX--John McCain told reporters at Mitt Romney's victory party in Phoenix that the 2012 Republican primary is the "most negative campaign I have ever observed in my career," and expressed hope that Romney would tie up the nomination as soon as possible.

Surrounded by about a dozen reporters outside the Hyatt Regency ballroom, while a trilingual band nearly drowned him out, McCain said the longer-than-expected primary fight was hurting the Republican party's odds against the man who beat him in the general election four years ago. (The band, Riptide, was alternating between Spanish and English, but Yahoo News was able to confirm that singer Danny Torriente spoke Swedish as well.) And McCain did not have kind words for his former Senate colleague, Rick Santorum.

"He wasn't taking one for the team," McCain said in response to Santorum's explanation at last week's Mesa debate about why he supported some bills he now opposes. "He was an earmarker and not a fiscal conservative."

Inside, roughly 300 supporters gathered to hear the Romney sons Craig and Matt speak on their father's behalf, recounting the story of how, before the Salt Lake City Olympics, he attempted a dangerous face-first luge in order to score an interview with Katie Couric.

Meanwhile, the crowd monitored the televisions nervously, watching for returns from Michigan. As soon as CNN projected Michigan for Romney, the crowd, now dwindling a bit, erupted into sustained cheers. The band kept playing.

--Chris Wilson, 10:29 p.m. ET

LIVONIA, Mich.--Where better to end a 160-mile odyssey across Michigan to gauge the mood of Tuesday's hard-times Republican primary than by talking to voters at the Herbert C. Hoover Elementary School. Livonia, population 97,000, is a tidy middle-class city to the west of Detroit, afflicted like most of the metropolitan area by the mini-depression still hanging over the auto industry.

Interviewing voters in front of Herbert Hoover Elementary (and no, the nearby middle school is not named after Warren Harding), I picked up the first confirmation of a trend. Some Democrats, who can participate in the open primary, really are voting for Rick Santorum because they view him as Barack Obama's weakest opponent. As a balding middle-aged man in a windbreaker, who works in sales but did not reveal his name, put it after leaving the polls: "I'm a strong Democrat. But I voted for Santorum because there's no way that he can beat Obama. Romney, on the other hand, might have a chance." He was the second Democrat for (nudge, nudge) Santorum among the 20 Livonia voters I interviewed as part of my very informal and unscientific statewide exit poll.

After more than three decades covering presidential politics, I tend to be skeptical about partisan mischief-makers intervening in the other party's primaries. In South Carolina, which like Michigan has an open primary, comedian Stephen Colbert encouraged Democrats to prank the Republicans by voting for him on the Herman Cain line. But despite the trans-galactic media attention that Colbert attracts, Cain received fewer than 6,000 votes. That is why I also dismissed the significance of Santorum's own last-minute appeal to old-fashioned Reagan Democrats to embrace his candidacy.

Maybe the Democrats-for-Santorum blip in Livonia is due to coincidence and sample size. Or maybe this is such an important, yet muddled, primary that Democrats believe that their tilt toward the polarizing candidacy of Santorum can shape the outcome. This is not to deny that Santorum has legitimate supporters in Livonia. When I asked a computer engineer with a shaved head whom he had voted for, he replied helpfully, "Mike." Mike? "Yeah, Mike Santorum. I really don't like Romney."

My final tally in Livonia was Romney 10, Santorum (including the two Democratic pranksters) 8 and Ron Paul 2. And if you are truly desperate for returns before the Michigan polls close, here are the combined results of my exit-poll adventures in Zeeland, Lansing and Livonia: Romney 27, Santorum 22, Paul 5 and Newt Gingrich 1. Or, to put it another way, as Shapiro goes, so goes Michigan.

--Walter Shapiro, 7:57 p.m. ET

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- On the first floor of an unadorned suburban office building, about 15 volunteers--including a few kids--sat with cellphones at a half-dozen tables, surrounded by campaign yard signs that lined the wall of the open room.

"She hung up on me!" said one girl who looked like she was in middle school, pulling the phone from her ear and scanning her list of Michiganders to call in support of Rick Santorum.

The campaign has only had operations in the state for a couple of weeks--a last-minute operation for a candidate who spent so much time building grassroots support in states like Iowa and South Carolina.

In the back of the office was a spread of chips, sodas, waters, and fruit for the volunteers. The pizza was on its way. Secret Service guards on their first day of official duty with the campaign were spread throughout, and they kept their eyes trained on the many news reporters who had been invited to see the candidate's Michigan headquarters on Primary Day.

As the phone bankers went through their lists, the front door opened, and Santorum's son John walked in. A campaign aide ordered him to a table. "Find a phone," he said. John did, and started making calls for his dad.

Outside, the candidate stepped out of his SUV, and a reporter asked if he thought he would win in Michigan. Santorum shrugged.

"I'm not a pollster," he said. "I don't even have a pollster."

Santorum greeted his volunteers in the office one by one, and then grabbed a phone himself and started dialing to ask people to vote for him.

On the first call, the line was busy. On the next three, he reached a person. One didn't believe it was him.

"Is there any famous person here?" Santorum said, looking for someone in the press to vouch for him.

"It's me," he pleaded to the person on the phone. "And I'd love your vote today."

Despite having the new Secret Service protection, Santorum kept up his old ways of mingling with the press. (He's been notoriously open to chatting with reporters throughout the campaign.) Reporters asked him about Romney's latest criticism, that he was an "economic lightweight." Santorum shot back that Romney was "a lightweight on conservative accomplishments."

He played down expectations for his success in the state.

"Look, Governor Romney's had a lot more money, a lot more staff, did a lot better job in getting out the early vote because he had the resources to put in that--to drive early voting," he said. "We just came up here two weeks ago, we've had to play a lot of catch-up."

"At what point do we start saying, Rick Santorum is the front-runner here?" asked ABC News' Jon Karl. "Not the scrappy challenger who is taking on the big, overfunded establishment candidate?"

"I like that narrative," Santorum said. "That sounds good. Can you say that into the camera here? That's pretty good. That's who we are."

--Chris Moody, 7:12 p.m. ET

TEMPE, Ariz.--When a woman named Helene received a call from Laura Knaperek with the Romney campaign, she said she didn't need a reminder to vote in the Arizona primary. She cast her ballot for the former Massachusetts governor the day she received it in the mail, but she wanted Knaperek to know that she was praying for "our Lord to send the right person" to the White House.

When Knaperek suggested that Helene call some friends in Michigan to remind them to vote, Helene said she didn't have Internet or a cellphone.

"I could tell she was from the Midwest," said Knaperek, a former state legislator who grew up in Chicago and moved to Arizona in her twenties. She slapped a bell to announce another confirmed vote for Romney.

Knaperek was one of about 10 volunteers at a Romney call center at the Four Points hotel here, just outside Phoenix. Handmade signs designated the room as "Romney Nation" or "Mitt-zona USA." The bells were ringing several times a minute, but that didn't necessarily mean the campaign was racking up any last-minute votes it would otherwise have lost. Roughly half the voters in the state requested early ballots, and by Monday counties were reporting return rates of around 60 percent.

Perhaps because so much of the voting has already occurred, there was not a tremendous sense of urgency in the room. Bruce Merrill, a political scientist at Arizona State University, told the Tucson Sentinel that he expected only about 10 percent of votes to be physically cast at the polls. Romney has a comfortable margin in the polls among the state's 1,124,726 registered Republicans eligible to vote in the closed contest.

The Romney campaign uses a vendor named FLS Connect that feeds the numbers of supporters directly to a volunteer's phone. Volunteers are supposed to tell voters that "your precinct is actually one of the most important precincts in the state," but Knaperek, who used to represent much of Tempe and surrounding areas, tended to wing it a bit. A second photocopied script specifically for Arizona, which none of the volunteers appeared to be using, instructed callers to first say that, "I'm calling to collect research on the upcoming Republican presidential primary." The script later identified the caller as a Romney volunteer.

Knaperek was having trouble leaving messages at some numbers, which she suspects is because some with Cox landlines were having technical difficulties with voice mail.

When Yahoo News asked if she thought this was a Democratic ploy to prevent the Romney campaign from reaching supporters, she said she was "not a conspiracy-minded person," and dialed the next voter. He said he'd already voted for Romney as well.

"You get a blue ribbon and a red star," she said--not a line from the script, but perhaps one that belongs on it.

--Chris Wilson, 3:16 p.m. MT

BLOOMFIELD HILLS, Mich.-- Less than five miles away from the struggling former auto town of Pontiac, the street signs turn into black-and-gold carved wooden placards. Old fashioned wrought iron-style street lamps dot the medians.

You're in Mitt Romney's hometown.

Regularly ranked as one of the wealthiest cities in the nation for its size (in the 2,500 to 10,000 residents category) Bloomfield Hills is home to many private schools, including the Cranbrook Schools--a group of private schools where Mitt Romney received a portion of his education. Romney's wife, Ann, was also a Cranbrook student--that's how the two met.

So it was no surprise to find many active Romney voters here Tuesday at a local polling location, the Congregational Church of Birmingham.

"Economic reasons," one man, proudly displaying his "I Voted" sticker on this beautiful, spring-like day, offered up when Yahoo News asked why he had cast a ballot for Mitt Romney.

"He has a better shot than Santorum," one woman said.

Kathy Hunt noted her personal connection to Romney: "My husband worked with Mitt at Bain and Company," Hunt said, adding that she felt confident Bain and Company's leaders were strong "executive decision-makers."

Gene Goodman, the lone admitted Ron Paul voter I encountered while briefly stationed here Tuesday, said he held his nose and voted for John McCain in 2008, but now was a tried-and-true Paul fan. He added that he would have a problem if Paul made a third-party bid.

And several locals offered up unsolicited comments about potentially nefarious participation in the open primary. "I'm one of those stirring up mischief!" a woman arriving on church business, who wasn't voting, joked to Yahoo News.

"I probably should have chose 'Republican' so I could vote for Gingrich," Democrat Russ Simon joked. Simon said he was unaware he would have to choose a party when he entered the polling station. He decided to choose the Democratic ballot and voted for Barack Obama, whom he supported in 2008.

"They said I was the first Democrat in there!" he said about the polling station.

Yahoo News did not encounter any Santorum supporters in Bloomfield Hills.

--Rachel Rose Hartman, 4:15 p.m. ET

LANSING, Mich.--If Mitt Romney loses tonight's Michigan primary by one vote, I can describe the culprit. She is late-middle-aged, dark-haired, reluctant to have her name used in print, and votes at Lewton Elementary School in an affluent neighborhood of the state capital. "When I went to vote for Romney," she explained, "I got so confused that I voted 'Uncommitted.' I guess I could have changed it. But I didn't care that much."

That's the Romney difference. As I interviewed lunchtime voters at a sleepy polling station combining two precincts, the only Romney passions I detected were against him. A retired state employee with an oxygen inhaler paused in his shaky progress to his car to explain his Santorum vote. "Anybody but Romney," he shouted. "Romney's trying to buy the presidency. He says he's from Michigan. But he left when he was 12. He's a phony-baloney."

Billy Windom, a Lansing police officer, who also voted for Santorum, explained, "Mitt Romney's too polished. And I don't see much difference between him and Obama."

Extrapolating too much from voter interviews at a single polling place is, of course, dangerous and should never be attempted at home. But the Romney passion gap appears to be a continuing problem, especially among high-information voters, such as those in a state capital.

In a neighborhood like this, everyone seems to be practicing strategic voting. A blue-suited lobbyist--who said, "You must be kidding," when I asked if I could use his name--just decided to vote for Romney this morning. His reason: "He has the best chance to beat Obama."

Jim Hepfer, a retired radio engineer, explained that he voted for Ron Paul "because if he gets enough support they'll let him speak at the convention and he can influence the platform."

But the award for clever political logic goes to a retired nurse who said, "I voted for Santorum but that was only because I'm against Romney. You see, I really like Newt Gingrich--and I want to keep the process going."

For those who care about unscientific and probably random numbers, the vote count at Lewton Elementary was Santorum 7, Romney 5 and Ron Paul 2. But because this is an upscale neighborhood, "I'd Rather Not Say" topped "None of Your Business" in the mum's-the-word sweepstakes.

Now on to Livonia in the western Detroit suburbs — ground zero for contested turf. Romney held his final rally there Tuesday morning and Santorum spoke to the local Chamber of Commerce there Monday.

--Walter Shapiro, 3:55 p.m. ET

KENTWOOD, Mich. -- By the time Rick Santorum rolled up to a diner here with his new Secret Service detail, his wife, Karen, had already paved the way for his arrival. While her family and some friends ate at a long table near the back of the restaurant, Mrs. Santorum worked the room.

Rick's on his way, she told people with a handshake and a smile. He'll be here soon.

They ordered more cups of coffee and waited.

When he arrived at the New Beginnings Restaurant a few minutes behind schedule, Santorum made a beeline for Karen, whom he had not seen in a few days. Despite the throng of nosy reporters and pushy government agents, Santorum acted as if he were alone in the room with Karen. They embraced each other and kissed for several seconds. (Think Tony and Maria in the school gym during the mambo, but with sweater vests.)

Wearing jeans, cowboy boots and a blue blazer over a gray vest, Santorum then weaved through the restaurant for a quick round of flesh pressing. One man, sitting alone in a booth with a plate full of eggs, took a bite just as Santorum approached his table. The candidate greeted him, put his hand on his back, and before the man could swallow, moved on to the next table. The man nodded and returned to his breakfast.

Others were more chatty. "I love you and your family!" a woman at another table told him.

"His wife looks pretty good for somebody who's had seven kids," one man remarked after meeting the couple. He looked up at Santorum, who by then was a few tables away. "Speech! speech! speech!"

There was no time for a speech, because Santorum had a plane to catch to Toledo, Ohio, for another quick stop before turning around and closing out the night in Grand Rapids.

But he didn't leave before saying a few things about Mitt Romney, who this morning accused Santorum's campaign of engaging in "dirty tricks" for robocalling Democrats in Michigan and urging them to vote for Santorum.

Michigan voters also received pro-Romney robocalls that played a four-year-old recording of Santorum endorsing Romney for president in 2008. Santorum defended his tactic, and said Romney -- or whoever paid for those calls -- was engaging in "cheap shots."

"Running robocalls with my voice from four years ago, that's not a dirty trick?" Santorum said. "And I didn't complain about it. I don't complain. You know what? I'm a big guy. I can take it. Someone wants to go out and take cheap shots ... to use someone's voice from four years ago saying that I endorsed him, you tell me what that is. I'm going out talking about the issues."

--Chris Moody, 12:32 p.m. ET

ZEELAND, Mich. -- Church bells chimed the quarter hour as early-morning voters pulled up behind the polling station in the Howard Miller Library without ever thinking to lock their car doors. Zeeland (population: 5,504) is small-town western Michigan. The banners downtown proclaim, "Feel the Zeel." And it is here in Ottawa County (the most socially and politically conservative major county in the state) that Rick Santorum needs to roll up a big margin if he has a chance to upset Mitt Romney, the son of a former Michigan governor.

Based on a very informal exit poll that I conducted between 8:00 and 9:15 this morning, Romney is doing surprisingly well here -- running even with "None of Your Business." But what is more important than the unscientific numbers is that the broad strokes of the candidate biographies have registered with Zeeland voters. Romney backers mention his "business savvy," his steadiness and his parentage. In contrast, Santorum supporters invariably said things like, "I like what he stands for. He's a Christian."

In fact, every Santorum voter I spoke to used the word "Christian."

It is perfect February voting weather in western Michigan -- sunny with dry sidewalks and temperatures well over freezing. At the polling place in Zeeland, there were no candidate signs or volunteers handing out brochures. Just me, as I began a primary-day experiment to test whether I can gauge the mood of Michigan by conducting voter interviews across the state.

Here are the first returns: Romney 12; Santorum 7; Newt Gingrich 1; Ron Paul 1; and, yes, a Democrat who voted for Barack Obama. These crude numbers should be considered the Michigan equivalent of Dixville Notch, the New Hampshire hamlet that is famed by being so early-bird that it votes every election at midnight.

If there was a worrisome portent for Santorum, it was embedded in the comments of a local minister who voted together with his wife. "We like Santorum more," he said. "But we think that Romney can get elected in November -- and Santorum can't."

If there is a sign that should make Romney backers skittish, it was the vagueness of his voters when asked to explain their choice. "That's a good question," said a business consultant, who pondered for maybe 10 seconds before adding, "His resume more than anything."

Now on to an affluent precinct in Lansing, the state capital, to catch lunchtime voters.

--Walter Shapiro, 11:10 a.m. ET

LIVONIA, Mich. -- Mitt Romney expressed confidence on Tuesday that he will win Michigan's primary and that he will ultimately be the Republican Party's presidential nominee. But he acknowledged the race "won't be over in a day or two."

Speaking to reporters at his campaign headquarters, Romney took aim at Rick Santorum by describing him as an "economic lightweight" who doesn't know how to create jobs.

"He doesn't have the very attribute and skill that voters want and need," Romney said.

Romney criticized the Santorum campaign for running robocalls that encourage Democrats to support the former Pennsylvania senator in Michigan, suggesting that Santorum is trying to "kidnap" the Republican primary race. Asked why the race in Michigan has been so difficult, Romney pointed out that he's risen from "a 15-point deficit in the polls" over the last week.

"In the final analysis, I expect to be the nominee," Romney said. But he acknowledged that even if he does win the nomination, he will emerge from the primary battered and bruised -- especially among independents, among whom his approval rating has dropped in recent weeks during the rancorous primary season.

"Your flaws are overemphasized," Romney said. "But by November, it will be part of the past."

Romney held perhaps the flashiest event of his campaign on Monday, a rally featuring a performance by Kid Rock who performed "Born Free," a country rock ode to American patriotism that has been embraced as the Romney campaign anthem.

The event came after secret negotiations between Romney and Kid Rock, whom the former Massachusetts governor secretly visited last week to ask for his support. He didn't get an endorsement, but he did get Kid Rock to perform a song for him live, at his final rally in the state.

--Holly Bailey, 10:03 a.m. ET

DEARBORN, Mich. -- Just in case Michiganders weren't aware, Ron Paul's campaign would like to remind you: People in the news media are liars.

At a campaign event Monday night at the the Ford Community and Performing Arts Center, Paul's Michigan director of technology, Adam de Angeli, told those seated in the packed auditorium that misinformation is being circulated about the Texas congressman's presidential campaign.

"We're second place in delegates," de Angeli said to the enthusiastic crowd -- which was pegged at 1,500 by the Paul campaign. Many looked at one another in surprise and burst into applause. According to an analysis by the Associated Press, Paul is in last place with 19 delegates.

Paul drew an enthusiastic and gregarious crowd filled with young people, including many Muslim women in hijabs and doctors, dubbed "Doctors for Dr. Paul," who had been invited to the event. Paul interned and did his residency at the nearby Henry Ford Hospital.

--Rachel Rose Hartman, 9:36 a.m. ET

KALAMAZOO, Mich. -- When the small gymnasium at Heritage Christian Academy filled with supporters on Monday night, aides for Rick Santorum's presidential campaign ushered about 35 Michiganders into a nearby classroom, which they used as an overflow room. With no live video feed available, they had to improvise. So Santorum volunteered his 20-year-old daughter Elizabeth to address the group in his stead.

"Elizabeth is going to sneak out and go to one of the other classrooms, and she's going to do her own town hall meeting for the people who couldn't be here," Santorum said to the packed hall. "For members of the press, you might find that more interesting. She'll answer all personal questions about me."

Well, yes, Yahoo News did indeed find that more interesting.

In a Spanish classroom down the hall from the gym, adults squeezed into desks for students and faced a whiteboard with Proverbs 1:7 -- "Fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge" -- written on the front. A row of pictures of ancient Jerusalem lined the side wall. One man sat down at the teacher's chair, occasionally glancing at a student grade book that had been left open on the desk and a Bible opened to the book of Isaiah.

Poised and well-spoken, Elizabeth Santorum made the case for her father. Standing in front of a Rascal electric scooter with a bumper sticker that read, "Yeah, it's a Hemi," she began by highlighting his personable side.

"People ask, How do you think he'll be different if he's president?" she said. "You see that's the beautiful thing: He'll be exactly the same. You know, for better or for worse, he's my dad and he'd be a great president."

She had been speaking only for 30 seconds when a voter interrupted with a pressing question.

"Where does he stand on the capital gains tax?" a bespectacled woman on the second row asked.

Santorum paused, and blushed slightly.

"That's one I've never been asked before," she said. "I'm sorry, I'll be honest."

She turned to a campaign aide wearing a sweater vest for help.

"I'll go find out," he said, disappearing out the door.

Elizabeth, the oldest of seven children, is her dad's go-to kid for surrogate duty. She has spent months on the campaign trail and often speaks to groups like this or fills in for him when he can't make it. While campaigning in Florida in January, Santorum had to leave the trail because his youngest daughter, Bella, who was diagnosed with a rare genetic disorder at birth, became ill, and Elizabeth stepped in to run the campaign rally.

Typically, supporters ask questions about the family and how they feel about the possibility of someday living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. One time, someone asked if she ever thought about riding a mattress down a White House stairwell. "Well now I am!" she remembered saying.

On Monday, a few of the questions, while polite and friendly, turned out not to be so easygoing. One man in front wanted to know why Santorum hadn't vowed to balance the budget immediately. (Rick Santorum's plan would achieve a balanced budget in five years, his campaign says.)

"Tell him to go for zero," the man said. "Instead of five years, go for zero years."

When question time was over, Elizabeth Santorum walked around the room and shook hands with each supporter individually. After about 15 minutes, her dad arrived.

"How we doing?" he asked as the room erupted in applause. "Did my daughter do OK?"

An aide walked up to him, motioning toward the woman who asked the question about the capital gains tax.

"Twelve point five percent," he said crisply, and then posed with each person for pictures before leaving for a live appearance on Fox News.

--Chris Moody, 9:26 a.m. ET

Read more coverage of the 2012 Michigan and Arizona primaries at Yahoo! News.

More popular Yahoo! News stories:

Want more of our best political stories? Visit The Ticket or connect with us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, or add us on Tumblr. Handy with a camera? Join our Election 2012 Flickr group to submit your photos of the campaign in action.