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Santorum a threat to Romney in Mich.

Loss would be blow to native son

By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / February 16, 2012
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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. - Rick Santorum, who has demonstrated an ability to rally social conservatives, is now trying to broaden his coalition in Michigan by attracting blue-collar fiscal conservatives - and do it all in Mitt Romney’s boyhood backyard.

A victory in Michigan Feb. 28 would be a stunning upset for the former Pennsylvania senator, and would signal his ability to do well in Rust Belt states where manufacturing has taken a beating in the economic downturn.

“You’re seeing that Anybody But Romney vote unite around Santorum here in Michigan,’’ said Steve Mitchell, an East Lansing-based pollster. “The question it really comes down to is . . . will Santorum have enough money to compete? Or is he just going to get overwhelmed by the amount of money Romney and his supporters pour in?’’

Santorum has yet to feel the full impact from the barrage of negative ads that started coming his way yesterday from Romney supporters. Santorum quickly responded with an ad of his own, showing a Romney body double running around an empty warehouse with a machine gun, misfiring muddy pellets at Santorum.

“In the end,’’ the commercial says, “Mitt Romney’s ugly attacks are going to backfire.’’

For Romney, the stakes could hardly be higher as he tries to rebrand himself as a conservative standard-bearer in the wake of his three-state defeat by Santorum last week. A Romney loss in Michigan - the state where he grew up, the state his father governed, the state he says he loves - would not only breathe further life into Santorum’s campaign but could derail Romney’s.

“Everybody here, I think, has been expecting all along this would be a slam-dunk for Mitt Romney,’’ said Bill Ballenger, editor of the Inside Michigan Politics newsletter. “Rick Santorum is nothing here in Michigan. Never has been. Nobody knows who he is personally.’’ It’s stunning, he said, that the race here is suddenly competitive.

New polls show Santorum gaining ground in nearly every region of Michigan, from the industrial areas of Detroit to the rural northern peninsula to the socially conservative areas in western Michigan. He’s ahead by double-digits in some surveys, buoyed by personal popularity and support from the Tea Party, in a state rich with Catholics and evangelicals. Voters have also started to sour on Newt Gingrich, who was formerly seen as the chief alternative to Romney.

Romney’s campaign projects confidence as it launches tougher attacks on Santorum, encourages absentee voting by supporters, and collects endorsements, including one expected today from Governor Rick Snyder.

“It’s been his state,’’ said Bob Schostak, chairman of the Michigan Republican Party. “It’s been a place he’s most comfortable, and recognized, and welcomed over the past couple years. It’s something he would expect to win.’’

Still, Schostak added, Santorum “resonates well with conservatives.’’

Santorum and his supporters have cited his ability to attract a broader coalition of voters, saying that his political career in Pennsylvania showed that he could win over blue-collar workers in industrial states like Michigan. He also has a plan to help manufacturers by eliminating their corporate taxes.

Romney supporters criticize Santorum for his pride in securing earmarks, even though Romney also sought such federal spending requests as Massachusetts governor, as well as a 1998 vote to confirm future Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor to the federal circuit court.

The rivalry will play out over the next several days. Romney is planning to address a chamber of commerce luncheon today near his childhood home in Bloomfield Hills. At about the same time, Santorum is addressing the Detroit Economic Club, a well-connected group of business owners.

Romney, who last night came to this city in more conservative western Michigan, has increasingly been stressing his hometown roots. The rally, held at an office furniture supply company, was billed as a “Welcome Home Rally for Mitt Romney.’’

This week Romney wrote an op-ed article in the Detroit News calling himself a “son of Detroit.’’ Romney yesterday also started running a television ad in the Detroit area called “Growing Up,’’ that shows him driving around in a car as he talks about going to the auto show with his father.

“Michigan’s been my home. This is personal,’’ he says, as he criticizes President Obama for the auto bailout.

But in the home of the auto industry, Romney’s stance opposing the bailout for GM and Chrysler could complicate things. In 2008, he wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times with the headline, “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.’’

Romney wanted the companies to go through a managed bankruptcy, rather than have the benefit of federal dollars. Ultimately, under decisions by President George W. Bush and President Obama, the automakers did receive a bailout.

The companies are now on much sounder footing. Political observers in Michigan say Romney’s position is unlikely to be an issue in the primary - where most Republicans share his opposition to the bailout - but could hurt him in a general election.

The television ads have not yet hit the state like the blitz seen in Iowa and Florida, but there are signs they are coming. As part of a $1.5 million ad buy, the pro-Romney super PAC Restore our Future took out ads yesterday in Michigan, Ohio, and Arizona tagging Santorum as a “big spender, Washington insider.’’

The super PAC supporting Santorum has not yet made final decisions about Michigan yet, according to a spokesman.

Four years ago, Romney won Michigan handily, capturing 39 percent of the vote to John McCain’s 30 percent. He fared best in the greater Detroit area, which holds the state’s largest haul of votes.

There are 30 delegates at stake in Michigan, which will be awarded to candidates based largely on their performance in each of the congressional districts. The state’s Republican primary is open to Democrats and independents.

At last night’s rally, John Cole, 72, a retired social worker, said, “I can’t believe that Santorum is leading in the polls here. If [Romney] doesn’t win Michigan, I don’t know what’s going to happen. I just can’t see him losing.’’

Standing nearby was Raymond Reifsnyder, who said he is leaning toward Santorum.

“He’s more down to earth; he’s a family man,’’ Reifsnyder said. Romney, he said, “comes across cold, and his message isn’t right.’’

Romney focused his remarks, both at the rally, and beforehand during a discussion with a group of business-owners, solely on President Obama, never mentioning his Republican rivals.

Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com.

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