Romney and Santorum battle to the bitter end in crucial Michigan primary

Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum battled it out to the bitter end Tuesday, swapping barbs and taunts in the hours before polls closed in the pivotal Michigan primary.

The leading Republican hopefuls spent much of the day bickering over Sanotrum's decision to robocall state Democrats in the hope that liberal mischief-makers might turn the tide against Romney in his home state. Romney called the move "the dirty tricks of a desperate campaign," while Santorum defended himself, saying he "didn't complain" about the money Romney spent on attack ads.

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The state's open primary allows voters to choose either party's primary ballot, regardless of initial party affiliation.

But through the noise, both candidates struggled to project confidence heading into a contest that could redefine the GOP's nominating contest.

Asked about his expectations Tuesday afternoon, Santorum shrugged off questions from reporters about whether he would win the contest.

"I'm not a pollster. We don't even have a pollster," Santorum said, according to Reuters.

And while Romney predicted that he would prevail in the state where he grew up, he acknowledged to reporters Tuesday that his campaign had made missteps.

“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.

A loss in Michigan would be devastating for Romney, while a victory for Santorum would add to the momentum the former Pennsylvania senator gained earlier this month, when he beat Romney in the Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri contests.

Voting is expected to go down to the wire. 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.

Polls in most of the state close at 8 p.m. ET but four counties are in central time, meaning results aren't expected until 9 p.m. at the earliest. But the close race has some observers predicting it will be a late night.

Arizona is also voting Tuesday and Romney was projected as the winner of that contest as soon as the polls closed.

But Michigan will be the state everyone is watching.

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 Massachusetts 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.

With all signs pointing to one of the closest elections yet — and this in a primary season that saw Santorum win Iowa's caucuses by 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.

The Santorum campaign sought 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.