Triumphant Rick Santorum takes fight into Mitt Romney’s Michigan backyard

Rick Santorum will take the fight for the Republican presidential nomination to Mitt Romney in Michigan, the state where Romney grew up and where his father served as governor.

“We’re heading to Michigan,” Santorum said on MSNBC Wednesday morning, the day after he swept caucuses in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri. “We think Michigan is a great place for us to plant our flag and talk about jobs and opportunities for everybody in America to rise.”

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The state, which votes on Feb. 28, is a must-win for Romney to remain the front-runner. If he loses on his home turf one week before Super Tuesday, on March 6, it will reinforce the idea that he is beatable and at odds with his party’s conservative base, and it will give whoever wins in Michigan massive momentum.

“Romney damn well has to win this state. He has to,” said Bill Ballenger, the editor of Inside Michigan Politics and a former Republican state lawmaker. “If he loses Michigan, the wheels could really start coming off the buggy.”

While Romney will have the big edge in money and organization, and still has family active in the state GOP, he could have some weaknesses there, too. He won Michigan by nine points in 2008, a much narrower victory than he had in Minnesota and Colorado that same year. The state’s demographics also pose some problems for him. 

Santorum has shown considerable strength with social conservatives, blue-collar voters and Tea Party supporters, all of whom are a major presence in Michigan — and are groups that have resisted Romney from the start. But Romney is counting on his family connections, deep pockets and strong infrastructure in the state to carry him through.



Alex Castellanos, a 2008 Romney strategist who is neutral in this year’s primary, said that Romney needs to worry about Michigan. 


“It was a long time ago that his dad was governor, and that is a very conservative primary,” he said.

Romney’s campaign was bowled over by Santorum in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri after spending little time and money in the states, and is unlikely to make the same mistake in Michigan and Arizona, which votes on the same day. A super-PAC supporting Romney has already been on the air for days in the state, and both the super-PAC and Romney’s campaign are likely to spend heavily on ads.

But that super-PAC might have inadvertently helped Santorum by targeting Gingrich for days with negative ads. Santorum stands poised to pick up conservatives who are turned off by Gingrich’s issues.

Romney’s campaign has pivoted to attack Santorum in recent days, hitting out at his past support of earmarks and criticizing him as a Washington insider. After Santorum said Wednesday that the problem with Washington was its culture more than its leaders, Romney’s campaign took the quotation out of context to slam him as a Washington insider.

“Rick Santorum says that there is not a problem with the way the federal government is being led,” said Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul in a statement. “That is ridiculous and again proves why conservatives can’t trust a Washington insider to fix the problems that Washington insiders created.”

But many GOP strategists say Santorum’s record gives Romney much less to work with than Gingrich.

“Romney will have to come up with a positive reason to vote for him between now and Michigan,” said GOP strategist Ford O’Connell, who is unaffiliated in the race. “He can’t just go negative against Santorum, because there’s not as much to go after as there was with Gingrich.”

Castellanos agreed.

“Rick Santorum has waged a populist war against the Washington establishment for a long time. It’s going to be hard to paint him as a member of the Washington elite and status quo and get this earmark thing to stick,” he said. 

“With Gingrich, he just had to reopen old wounds, and there were plenty. With Rick Santorum, he’s got to tell you that this new ruby-red Michigan apple, this new, bright candidate who has captured the conservative imagination, is not what he appears, and that’s a much tougher job,” Castellanos said.

Romney has consistently led in polls in the state, but a survey conducted by the nonpartisan pollster EPIC-MRA after Gingrich’s big win in South Carolina had Gingrich only five points behind Romney. Gingrich has indicated he will focus more on Arizona, which also votes on Feb. 28, and on states that vote a week later, on Super Tuesday, giving Santorum a cleaner shot at Romney in the state.

EPIC-MRA’s pollster, Bernie Porn, said Gingrich came that close in the poll despite high unfavorable numbers and that Michigan was no sure thing for Romney. “I think Romney has the potential to struggle,” he said. “If Santorum can get up with enough of a TV buy … he could make a run here.”

Santorum’s campaign has long struggled with fundraising, but he announced that he had raised $400,000 from the day of the vote through midday on Wednesday. He spent Wednesday in Texas, meeting with prominent conservative donors. 

Another complicating issue in the state is the auto bailout, which many in Michigan view as having saved the industry and the state’s economy but many conservatives abhor as government intrusion.

Romney came out strongly against the bailout, penning an op-ed in 2008 titled “Let Detroit go bankrupt.”

Santorum also opposed the bailout, but not in as strident tones, and Michigan conservatives are split on the issue.

“Conservatives hate the auto bailout, but it’s a double-edged sword in the state of Michigan,” said Michigan GOP strategist Denise DeCook. “As [Michigan conservatives] go and cash their paychecks, they’re saying, ‘Hallelujah, I’m glad it was there, without that bailout there wouldn’t be a state of Michigan anymore.’ There’s the ideological voter, but then there’s an ideological and realistic voter.”

DeCook said Romney still had the edge but couldn’t take the state for granted. “It’d be a mistake for the Romney folks to think this is a slam-dunk, but if they do what they need to do, they’re going to win,” she said.

She pointed out that Santorum had spent almost no time in the state, while both Romney and Gingrich were well-known there. But she said if Santorum focused on the state he could have a good chance there.

“Santorum is a very personable individual,” she said. “Where he spends time and touches flesh, he has been able to turn that into wins.”


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