Rick Santorum shifts gear in Motown

Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum surprised observers by throwing only sporadic jabs at Mitt Romney in a major address Thursday at the Detroit Economic Club.

Santorum, vying for an upset victory in the Michigan primary on Feb. 28, drew some contrasts with Romney, but they were muted and overshadowed by a broader effort to connect economic issues to the social conservatism that has become his calling card.

Santorum affirmed his opposition to President Obama’s bailout of the auto industry — an unpopular stance in Detroit — and said his position was “more consistent” than Romney’s because he also opposed the federal rescue of Wall Street.

In one swipe at his rival, he alluded to a CNN interview where Romney said he was “not concerned about the very poor.”
There’s “another candidate in this race who suggests he doesn’t care about the very poor, he cares about the 95 percent,” Santorum said.

ADVERTISEMENT
“How about a candidate who cares about the 100 percent; who understands that without strong families and strong communities we are not going to be a successful country?”

Santorum referred to having completed his own tax returns and added, “Romney paid half the tax rate that I did, so obviously he doesn’t do his own taxes.”

But Santorum mostly pulled his punches and veered away from sustained attacks on Romney.

The speech “was good but it wasn’t great,” said Greg McNeilly, a Republican strategist in Michigan who is not aligned with any of this year’s presidential candidates. “He was a little clunky at times.”

Santorum is in a strong position in Michigan, according to recent polls. Real Clear Politics puts his average lead in the polling at 8.2 percentage points.

A win for Santorum in Michigan would be devastating for Romney, given the latter’s status as the national front-runner and his numerous advantages: Romney grew up there, his father was a popular governor, and he won the Republican primary in the state in 2008. As recently as the start of this month, two polls showed the former Massachusetts governor with a 15-percentage-point lead.

Some experts in the state believe Romney’s advantages will prove decisive in the coming days. His campaign, and the Restore Our Future super-PAC that supports him, are blitzing the airwaves with negative ads attacking Santorum, especially over issues of fiscal discipline.

Jeff Timmer, a former executive director of the Michigan Republican Party who said he is not allied with any candidate, argued the support for Santorum in the polls is comparatively shallow — and liable to evaporate in the face of well-funded attacks.

“What the polls are showing, in my opinion, is that voters are seeing [Santorum] as the embodiment of whatever they want to see in him. But really, Romney and his super-PAC will be making sure to present a very different view from, let’s say, the one that Santorum would like to see presented.”

Romney’s structural advantages also include a number of high-profile supporters who have rallied to his side. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) endorsed Romney at a Chamber of Commerce lunch in Washington, Mich., on Thursday, taking much of the spotlight off Santorum’s speech.

“The job is not getting done, and we need the leadership in Washington to get that job done, and to do that, you need the right people leading the charge,” Snyder said. “We have a person in Gov. Romney who has that background.”

During his Detroit speech, Santorum outlined his tax plan, which calls for manufacturing companies to be exempted from corporate taxes. He linked that proposal to Michigan’s blue-collar roots, arguing that the manufacturing sector deserves such a break because “you have to compete with many places around the world that want your jobs — and in many ways took your jobs.”

But he did not make a specific contrast between his plan and Romney’s. McNeilly, the Republican strategist, said it wasn’t clear to what degree the proposal might help Santorum in the primary.

On one hand, he said, the proposal was “very clear and very smart.” But he cautioned, “Michigan has seen the errors of government picking winners and losers. This idea of treating manufacturing differently is an example of that. Who can say manufacturing is better than, say, technological industries?”

Elsewhere, Santorum sought to connect the dots between economic troubles and a drift from conservative social values. He noted, for example, that poverty rates for single-parent families were exponentially higher than for two-parent families, despite the “heroic” efforts of single parents.

Later, calling for the revitalization of churches and other sources of localized community support, he said that “if there is a naked public square and you are out there paddling alone, government becomes your lifeboat.” 

One of the most revealing arguments from the event came during Santorum’s introductory remarks. He said that he would outline his economic plans and then explain “how we’re just a little different from some of the others in this race.”

He may have meant the words wryly — but his speech did, in fact, seem to suggest he was “just a little different.” It is a very open question whether that will be enough, as the Romney onslaught gathers force.