Blemished by a botched rally in a near-empty Detroit stadium and an unfortunate boast about his collection of cars, Mitt Romney was last night stumbling towards primary contests in two key American states on Tuesday that could determine the future of his quest for the Republican nomination.
There will be little disguising the depth of the disaster for Mr Romney if he fails to recover his winning form in Arizona, the scene of last week's last ill-tempered debate, and in Michigan, where he was born.
He has had help at least from his principle foe, Rick Santorum, who failed to rise to the occasion at the debate. The polls show Mr Romney just pipping Mr Santorum in Michigan and widening the gap in Arizona. Minding the rear in both states are Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul.
But just when Mr Romney needed to persuade voters that he alone has the gravitas to take on Barack Obama, he fumbled on Friday, delivering an economics speech in Ford Field in Detroit, where the audience of 1,200 looked embarrassingly puny in a venue for 64,000.
It underscored the impression that Mr Romney may be only the best of a bad bunch, rather than a visionary able to set the country on fire. Nor did it help when he attempted to endear himself to "Motortown" by revealing he drives a "Mustang and a Chevy" and that his wife "drives a couple of Cadillacs". Rather it emphasised his family's unusual wealth.
Prevailing this Tuesday will also be crucial for resetting the psychology of the race in time for "Super Tuesday", the following week, when 10 states vote.
Even then, however, Mr Romney's climb may be steep. The rules in Michigan mean he might get the most votes but not the largest number of delegates, because they are awarded by district; in the hinterland beyond Detroit, Mr Santorum may win the district count. Moreover, the results from Super Tuesday might be mixed, with Mr Gingrich expected to regain traction in the South and Mr Santorum showing strength in Ohio and Oklahoma.Reuse content