Romney: Santorum using 'dirty tricks' to win Michigan primary

Mitt Romney charged Rick Santorum with using "dirty tricks" to win Michigan's Tuesday primary.

"There's a real effort to kidnap our primary process," the former Massachusetts governor told reporters in the state Tuesday morning. "I need Republicans to get out and vote and say no to the dirty tricks of a desperate campaign."

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Romney was referring to a robocall, funded by the Santorum campaign, encouraging Democrats in Michigan to support the former Pennsylvania senator. The state's open primary allows voters to choose either party's primary ballot, regardless of initial party affiliation.

With polls showing the race in Michigan too close to call, the Romney camp has zeroed in on the robocall, blasting out a memo showing Republicans in the state support Romney and putting the candidate, who had been avoiding talking with the media, out front.

“It’s a dirty trick. It’s outrageous to see Rick Santorum team up with the Obama people and go out after union labor in Detroit and try to get them to vote against me,” Romney said Tuesday on Fox News. “Look, we don’t want Democrats deciding who our nominee is going to be, we want Republicans deciding who our nominee is going to be. I know why Obama doesn’t want me to face him.”

A loss in Michigan would be devastating for Romney, who grew up in the state and whose father served as governor. Romney won the state by nine points in the 2008 GOP primary.


But, speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Romney admitted he's made mistakes in the campaign, seeming to indicate he'd take responsibility for the primary's result.

“I’m very pleased with the campaign, its organization. The candidate sometimes makes some mistakes, and so I’m trying to do better and work harder and make sure that we get our message across,” he said.

For Santorum, a win in Michigan would add to the momentum he received earlier this month, when he beat Romney in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri.

Dueling polls in Michigan gave either of the top Republican candidates a slight lead. A Mitchell/Rosetta Stone survey released Tuesday morning gave the edge to Romney, leading their survey 37 percent to 36 percent, while a PPP poll released late Monday night favored Santorum, 38 percent to Romney's 37 percent.

With all signs pointing to one of the closest primary elections yet — and this in a season that saw Santorum win Iowa's caucuses by just 34 votes and Romney win the Maine caucuses by 239 votes — both campaigns are scrambling to frame the results.

Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul circulated a memo to reporters Tuesday that showed Romney leading in Michigan polls among voters who self-identify as Republican, preemptively spinning Romney's performance as strong among members of the GOP. The former governor's lead shrinks when other likely voters — including conservative independents who shun a party label, but also Democrats who might cross over and vote in the GOP primary — are included in the results.

"A look at the most recent polls demonstrates exactly why Sen. Santorum is resorting to Democrat cross-overs to prop up his floundering campaign: he can’t win among conservative voters," Saul said.

When asked about the criticism during a campaign stop in Grand Rapids, Mich., on Tuesday, Santorum said Romney should stop complaining.

"We're going to get voters that we need to be able to win this election. And we're going to do that here in Michigan today," Santorum said, according to The Associated Press.

The former senator went on to say that he didn't complain about campaign tactics on Romney's part that he objected to.

"I didn't complain about it. I don't complain. You know what? I'm a big guy. I can take it," Santorum said.

His staff went on to argue that Santorum was simply reaching out to Democrats they viewed as potential crossover voters in a general election. Romney's opponents also pointed to an ABC interview Romney gave in 2007 in which he admitted to voting in Democratic primaries while living in Massachusetts.

“When there was no real contest in the Republican primary, I’d vote in the Democrat primary, vote for the person who I thought would be the weakest opponent for the Republican," Romney said.

But, according to GOP strategist Ford O'Connell, no amount of spin could help Romney if he ends up losing his home state, especially after his campaign made clear through spending significant time and resources in Michigan that a win was important.

"I think Romney's biggest mistake was doubling down on Michigan as his home state, and as a result, instead of shaping the narrative, he's being driven by it," O'Connell said.

O'Connell also dismissed a suggestion by Romney supporter and Michigan GOP National Committeeman Saul Anuzis that Romney could still "win" Michigan despite a narrow loss in the popular vote by racking up more delegates via the state's district-level allocation.

"Romney really needs to win both the popular vote and the delegates in Michigan," O'Connell said. "Romney gives us the best chance to win, but the more he has to reach, grab and dig, the worse it looks for the general election."

The Santorum campaign is also looking to dampen expectations in case Romney is able to hold on in the state, arguing that merely forcing the former governor to devote time and resources to Michigan was a tactical victory.

"We have already won," Santorum adviser John Brabender told CNN Monday. "No matter what the results are, we've won. This is Romney's home state."

Santorum's aides have argued that no matter the vote totals, the former senator has exposed Romney's inability to coalesce conservative support around his campaign or appeal to blue-collar voters in states like Michigan, Iowa and Missouri. With the next round of nominating contests more focused on states where Southern evangelicals — a core Santorum constituency — have more sway, the former senator's staff say they're encouraged by the state of the race.

"The Romney campaign is spending a fortune they never expected to spend in Michigan, and every dollar they spend in Michigan is a dollar they don't have on Super Tuesday," Brabender said. Ten states vote on Super Tuesday, which is March 6.

Through the end of last week, Romney's campaign spent $1.7 million on commercial time in Michigan, with another $2.3 million in ads purchased by the pro-Romney super-PAC Restore our Future, according to Smart Media Group Delta, a media buying group monitoring the election. Santorum, meanwhile, had spent just under $900,000 in the state, with his super-PAC chipping in another $1.3 million. Romney holds a significant edge over Santorum in fundraising.

Nevertheless, Romney prevailing in Michigan would likely quiet establishment concerns that he is unable to win Rust Belt votes, and upset the growing narrative suggesting that Republicans are unwilling to back his candidacy.

There are encouraging signs for Romney based on early news from the polls in the state. According to the secretary of State's office, nearly 220,000 Republican absentee ballots have been returned, and polling — along with Romney's strong organization — indicate that a majority of those votes could go to the former governor. That represents nearly 17 percent of the 2008 GOP primary vote.

Meanwhile, county clerks across the state are reporting light turnout, according to the Detroit Free Press. Polling indicates that Santorum is expected to lead among voters who head to the polls Tuesday, but light turnout makes catching up to Romney's absentee lead more difficult.

Nevertheless, the county clerk in Oakland County — a wealthy Detroit suburb expected to be Romney's core constituency — is also reporting light morning turnout, suggesting the former governor has not necessarily rallied his base to turn out.

Romney admitted the race was "too close to call" at a campaign stop in Livonia, Mich., Tuesday morning.

"I don't think the pollsters know what's going to happen. I don't think we can be 100 percent sure what's going to happen," Romney said, according to USA Today.

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