Michigan was supposed to be an easy victory for Mitt Romney, but just over a week away from primary day, it is threatening to turn his campaign into turmoil.
Multiple polls last week showed Rick Santorum edging out Romney for the lead among likely Republican voters in the state, which votes Feb. 28.
Romney has blanketed the state with $1.2 million worth of TV ads — including one where he drives a Chrysler — a number matched by pro-Romney super-PAC Restore Our Future. He is also staging regular campaign events — deploying his wife, Ann, to events when he campaigns out-of-state — where he plays up his emotional connection to the state.
Romney also refers to his father, George, who served as a very popular governor in the 1960s, every chance he gets.
Craig Ruff, a longtime Michigan political analyst, pointed out that Michigan is exactly the kind of state where voters should be rallying to Romney, who has positioned himself as the “pro-growth, business leader, job-creator candidate,” and said that their resistance could indicate a significant weakness.
“I can’t think of states other than New Hampshire and Massachusetts that are more ripe for Romney to win than Michigan,” Ruff said. Romney won the state in 2008, when it was contested by fellow GOP candidates Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Ruff said that jobs are the No. 1 issue in Michigan, and so for Santorum — the social conservative — to be overtaking Romney is “phenomenal.”
Santorum’s string of three straight wins last week, contrasted with Romney’s win in a nonbinding caucus in Maine, has already hurt Romney’s status as the “inevitable nominee.” For Santorum to take his home state might not be a knock-out blow, but it would be a devastating stumble for the campaign.
Ruff called Romney’s win in the state “necessary, but not sufficient for Romney’s nomination.”
A few weeks ago, Newt Gingrich had seemingly written off the state to Romney, noted Matt Grossmann, an assistant professor of political science at Michigan State University. Then Santorum overtook Gingrich to win three states in one night and become Romney’s biggest rival nationally.
Romney’s biggest problem in Michigan is the same perception problem he has nationally, said Grossmann: “The electorate does not consider him conservative.” To that extent, his success in Michigan depends on whether Santorum — who appeared to fade after his early win in Iowa — can sustain his surge.
But Romney’s personal appeal, drawing from his Michigan roots, could be designed to counter a perceived insult to the Michigan auto industry. Romney in 2008 wrote an op-ed headlined “Let Detroit go bankrupt" that opposed the government bailout of GM and Chrysler.
Romney has not backed down from his position on the issue for Michigan audiences, writing an op-ed for The Detroit News last week defending his opposition, and has been unafraid to bring it up at campaign events.
“It is hurting him,” Ruff said of Romney’s position on the bailout. “He can be persuasive that bankruptcy court would have handled the automobile industry problems in a better way than the federal government, but you can prove that the federal bailout of GM and Chrysler worked and you can’t prove that bankruptcy would have worked. You can surmise it, but you can’t prove it.”
The clear success of the recovering automobile industry was demonstrated just this past week when General Motors announced Thursday it made a record-breaking profit of $7.6 billion in 2011.
"Glad we didn't let Detroit fail as Romney suggested. Never bet against the American worker!" tweeted Obama campaign manager Jim Messina.
Democrats aren’t likely to let Romney — or Michigan voters — forget his opposition any time soon. The Democratic National Committee has already released several Web videos slamming Romney for “betting against America,” a phrase used by Obama to refer to those who doubted the government bailout program would help the automobile industry recover.
Romney’s biggest surrogate in the state is Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R), but Snyder prefers to sidestep questions on Romney’s opposition to the bailout, instead focusing on the successful results and Michigan’s opportunities in the future.
But Santorum, who also opposed the automobile bailout, has not been shy about taking on Romney over the issue. He contrasted his position with Romney’s, saying he’s been “more consistent” in always opposing government bailouts, while accusing Romney of singling out the automobile industry.
Romney, who has until now let negative ads remain the focus of the super-PAC supporting him, pulled out all the stops in Michigan and released a new ad this week taking on Santorum directly for supporting earmarks.
Ruff said that voters in Michigan know “absolutely nothing” about Santorum other than his depiction by the national media, so Romney — whose campaign has a lot more money to pour into the state than Santorum’s — has a shot at defining him.
There’s no chance Romney will back down in Michigan, but Santorum might. He has publicly stated he hopes to finish a “strong second” in Michigan, while Romney has done just the opposite, telling reporters earlier this week that he will not lose there.
“That won’t happen," he said simply.
Romney was in Utah on Saturday for a reunion of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics Legacy and to attend a Stars on Ice performance, but is expected to campaign in the Midwest on Presidents Day.