Exactly five years ago this week, Mitt Romney launched his first presidential bid in Michigan, his birthplace and the state where his father served as a governor and top auto executive. Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, was essentially reclaiming his home state. There was little doubt he would win, and he did.
Now in his second and more assured campaign for president, Romney nevertheless finds himself in the awkward position of defending his home turf against a virtual stranger to the state. National and statewide polls suggest Rick Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania running on a shoestring and a populist call to arms, could win the Michigan primary on Feb 28.
It’s the latest sign that the 2012 Republican primary is defying expectations, history, and plain old logic. Santorum’s surge comes after winning minor Republican contests last week in Missouri, Minnesota, and Colorado that generated light turnouts and awarded zero delegates.
“This race has become totally nationalized, and even though Romney has done everything right by traditional standards in terms of organization and endorsements, he’s in a dogfight in Michigan because of the changing nature of presidential politics,’’ said Bill Ballenger, publisher of Inside Michigan Politics.
A Santorum victory would strip Romney of his front-runner’s cloak and throw the race into chaos. Romney would appear fatally flawed, while Santorum would continue to look like a long shot for the nomination – likely triggering a party-wide panic attack and potentially forcing a new candidate off the sidelines to try to rescue the GOP from a second Obama term.
But Romney has looked shaky before and proven his resilience. He learns from his mistakes. The laws of political gravity, which favor the candidate with money, organization, and endorsements, come to bear. Perhaps most importantly, Romney and his allied super PAC attack his opponents, when necessary, like gangbusters.
“He had hoped to win the state without a sweat, and he could win, but he’ll have to do to Santorum what he did to Newt [Gingrich] in Florida,’’ Ballenger added, referring to the media blitz that leveled the former House speaker in that state.
While Michigan voters already are seeing an anti-Santorum ad put on by an independent super PAC allied with Romney, the candidate himself began the full-court press on Tuesday with a positive, nostalgia-laced television commercial about his Michigan roots and desire to mend the state’s hard-hit economy. “I want to make Michigan stronger and better. Michigan has been my home, and this is personal,” Romney says.
The sentimental theme is echoed in a Detroit News column that begins, “I am a son of Detroit.’’ (True, though Romney spent most of his childhood in the affluent suburb of Bloomfield Hills.) Doubling down on his opposition to President Obama’s bailout of the auto industry, which he calls “crony capitalism on a grand scale,’’ he contends, “I believe that without his intervention things there would be better.’’ He also called for the Obama administration to sell its shares of General Motors and give taxpayers the proceeds.
Romney’s position on the auto bailout aims to strike the balance of heeding the Republican Party’s antigovernment mantra while appreciating the sensitivities of a state with a gutted manufacturing base and unemployment rate over 9 percent. (On Tuesday, former Gov. Jennifer Granholm and Reps. John Dingell and Sander Levin – all Democrats – fired back at Romney in a phone call with reporters, arguing that that auto industry would have gone under without Obama’s intervention.)
Romney plans to make his case personally – and beat Santorum to the punch – when he arrives in Michigan for a two-day visit on Wednesday. On Thursday, Santorum is scheduled to address the Detroit Economic Club and, in a direct challenge to Romney, to headline the Oakland County Republican Party’s Lincoln Day Dinner on his old stomping grounds.
Santorum is also advertising in Michigan. One ad directly addresses questions about his mainstream appeal by pitching him as “the best chance to beat Obama.’’ The other spot features quotes from prominent conservatives like Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh touting Santorum’s credentials.
The latest Gallup tracking poll and a Pew Research Center survey, both conducted last week after Santorum’s three-state sweep on Tuesday, show him catching up nationally with the longtime front-runner. In the Pew poll, rising support among tea party voters and white evangelicals pushed Santorum into a statistical tie with Romney, who has struggled to win over his party’s conservative wing. Gallup called Santorum's 14-point bounce since early September “the largest post-primary/caucus bounce Gallup has recorded since the primary season began.’’ That’s saying something in a race that has seen wild up and downs.
The trend is even more pronounced in Michigan. A recent poll by the American Research Group, for instance, found Santorum leading Romney, 33 percent to 27 percent.
Romney supporters downplayed the surveys and said they expect Santorum to fade as quickly as he surged. He’s only begun to come under major media scrutiny and has yet to face sustained attacks from his rivals. Romney and Paul are the only two candidates with national organizations and fundraising networks, said Saul Anuzis, a former Michigan Republican Party chairman backing Romney.
“I think these polls are little more than a blip that reflects Santorum’s pop,’’ he said. “I suspect [Santorum] will get his fair share of votes, but I think Romney will carry Michigan in the end.’’
It’s not just momentum giving Santorum’s campaign reason to be hopeful about Michigan. The state carries a strong, antiabortion current; even well-known Democrats like former Reps. David Bonior and Bart Stupak are abortion-rights opponents. In 2010, Republican Pete Hoekstra and his allies blamed his GOP primary loss in the governor’s race, in part, on the lack of an endorsement from Right to Life of Michigan.
Enter the 2012 Republican candidates. Santorum is known as a staunch abortion opponent; in 2003 he sponsored legislation to ban a late-term procedure critics call partial-birth abortion. In contrast, Romney has faced widespread criticism for renouncing his previous support for abortion rights.
Santorum’s other opening in Michigan is in his blue-collar, populist appeal as a fellow Rust Belter and grandson of a coal miner. He has proposed eliminating the corporate tax to help revive American manufacturing. Meanwhile, Romney’s personal wealth and success in the business world – along with verbal gaffes such as when he said he’s “not concerned about the very poor’’ – have become fodder for critics, who cast him as a heartless elitist.
Independent pollster Ed Sarpolus said a low turnout would likely be dominated by social conservatives who favor Santorum, while a larger turnout would indicate more participation by independents and Democrats, who are eligible to vote in the primary and might favor Romney. He also noted that while Romney boasts support from much of the state’s GOP political establishment, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder has withheld an endorsement so far. “There’s been a lot of hedging of bets in the last week,’’ Sarpolus said.