by Tim Kiska

What a difference a month makes.

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Back in December, Mitt Romney looked like the apparent Republican nominee. Nobody thought the road would be easy, but Romney had the money and the credibility that goes with once running a major state. Michelle Bachman and Rick Perry rose, and then fell.

With that in mind, Michigan’s February 28 primary date was considered, by many, to be too late to be relevant.

But Iowa, ultimately, didn’t turn out well for Romney, what with Rick Santorum suddenly coming out of the weeds and picking off the conservative vote. Romney won New Hampshire (no surprise), but lost big in South Carolina.

And all of a sudden, Michigan’s February 28 presidential primary becomes crucial for Romney’s future.

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Romney is leading in the Florida polls, but Newt Gingrich’s post-South Carolina bump could easily make that race highly competitive. There are caucuses in four states (Nevada, Maine, Colorado and Minnesota) in early February. Then, a three-week break.

So Romney will need Michigan – one week before the Super Tuesday extravaganza, with caucuses or primaries in 10 states – to prove that he’s got it, that he’s not a perennial second-place finisher, and that he can do well in a northern industrial Blue state— one that is up for grabs in November.

Can you say “firewall?”

Gingrich has a presence here in Michigan. And with the new campaign finance laws (or lack thereof) in place, somebody not even affiliated with the Gingrich campaign could move in, dump a few million dollars in broadcast advertising on Newt’s behalf.

And we’ll have a race.

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To paraphrase an old Chicago television advertising campaign: It won’t be pretty. But it’ll be real.