There are two ways of looking at the current state of the Republican primary race.
In one view, Mitt Romney has had it effectively wrapped up for weeks. Rick Santorum's freak victory in three contests last week was a meaningless blip--a speed bump. Sure, Santorum now leads in some polls, but he's fundamentally a small-time candidate who's about to get crushed like a bug by Romney and his allies. What we're witnessing now isn't drama--it's death throes.
The other view: Romney has never been weaker. The conservative brushfire that powered Santorum in Missouri, Minnesota, and Colorado is now a raging inferno that threatens to engulf the fragile front-runner. Desperate and flailing, Romney is on the verge of total collapse. With a natural and specific appeal in many of the upcoming primary states, Santorum is poised to sweep into Super Tuesday and become unstoppable.
Which is it? Michigan will tell.
The state's Feb. 28 primary stands to settle the vexing question of whether Romney is the unassailable GOP nominee, despite some temporary turbulence, or a paper tiger whose inability to seal the deal will cost him the race for the second time.
At the moment, there's no telling which way Michigan will go.
"Michigan has always been Romney's firewall," said Jordan Gehrke, a D.C.-based political consultant who hails from Michigan and has run campaigns there. "It would be a tremendous surprise if he lost the state. Even if Santorum gets within a few points ... the whole premise of [Romney's] electability starts to crack."
With Super Tuesday just a week later--10 states vote on March 6--anything less than a show of strength for Romney in his native state could trigger a tsunami of fresh support for Santorum.
"If Santorum wins Michigan, oh my goodness, it's Katie bar the door," said Chuck Yob, a Grand Rapids-based longtime Republican operative who supports Santorum. "I think he's going to do well in Michigan, and it wouldn't surprise me if he won."
The three public polls conducted since Santorum's recent hat trick of upsets have all shown him leading in Michigan by between 3 and 15 percentage points. Santorum's supporters in the state--where Republican politics are often blood sport--insist that is not a mirage or a bubble.
"People are shocked that anybody but Mitt Romney is doing well here, but I'm not surprised at all," said Glenn Clark, a longtime social conservative activist based in Troy, north of Detroit.
The state's Republican primary voters are very conservative, he said, with a strong "values voter" streak and, in recent years, a major influx of tea party activism. And while Romney's economic message resonates, he said, Santorum offers "the whole package."
"I'm a social conservative; I'm also an economic-freedom person. We can walk and chew gum at the same time," said Clark, who serves as president of the Michigan Faith and Freedom Coalition and is active in the tea party. At the same time, he said, cultural issues are suddenly top-of-mind, thanks to the current controversy over mandating contraceptive coverage in the implementation of health care reform.
"This power grab by Barack Obama to eradicate religious liberties has mobilized people of faith," he said. "It's on the table right now. People are talking about it."
Santorum's biggest successes thus far have come in Midwestern states--Iowa, Missouri, Minnesota. In places like Grand Rapids and Holland, where there is a large Dutch Reform population, the Michigan GOP electorate resembles Northwest Iowa's, while the suburban counties around Detroit are similar to Santorum's home in the Pittsburgh area. This demographic affinity is most of the reason that Santorum is focusing on Michigan rather than Arizona, which also holds a Feb. 28 primary.
Romney's stance on the Detroit bailout--he penned an op-ed titled "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt"--might not be a problem for the state's GOP voters on policy grounds; many see the auto industry bailout as a handout to unions. But that headline's potential to do general-election damage hurts Romney's argument that he's the strongest potential nominee. Meanwhile, a blue-collar appeal centered on an economic plan to revive manufacturing has always been central to Santorum's pitch, whereas Romney's economic plan is a more general blueprint to improve the overall economy.
But where Santorum's boosters see a man with a unique ability to pierce Romney's home-state armor, Romney backers see just the latest fly in the front-runner's ointment--one that stands to be swiftly swatted away.