Blue collar vs. blue blood

If there is one thing Mitt Romney has learned from the 2012 GOP nominating contest, it is that months of strategic planning, shrewd resource management and unrivaled organization can be torpedoed in 72 hours by a surging rival. Voters who don’t trust Romney have amassed an impressive record of challenging his dominance in the primary race at several critical turns, and within one swift week have now robbed Romney of his firewall in Michigan.

Rick Santorum has not only rocketed to the top of the national polls, but sits atop almost every Michigan survey with nearly two weeks to go until its Feb. 28 primary. Just one week before Super Tuesday, a Romney loss in his native state would be crippling, if not fatal. A rejection of Romney in a swing state where he arguably enjoys better name recognition and favorability would end whatever Romney juggernaut had existed. The establishment would have no choice but to reconsider his ability not only to beat Santorum but to beat President Obama in November as well.

Team Romney is “surprised” to have to contain a Santorum surge in Michigan, where Romney’s father was head of the American Motor Co. and a popular three-term GOP governor. Romney won the primary in 2008 against John McCain by pandering to the auto industry as McCain proclaimed its jobs gone, and urging autoworkers to keep hope. “Don’t listen to anybody who says those jobs aren’t coming back,” he told an unemployed voter at her kitchen table (in convenient proximity to a New York Times reporter) four years ago. “I’m not willing to accept that.”

Months later, however, Romney was willing to accept that his beloved domestic auto industry would have to go bankrupt, and opposed the bailout begun in the Bush administration and supported by Obama that pumped billions into several failing car companies. He even said that if those companies — now enjoying soaring profits — received the bailout, “you can kiss the American automotive industry goodbye. It won’t go overnight, but its demise will be virtually guaranteed.” There will be Republicans in 2012 who disagree. Even Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, poised to endorse a candidate next week (whom most assume will be Romney), has said that failing to bail out the autos “would have had a devastating impact on the economy.”

Romney won’t have to worry about Santorum running against his opposition to bailouts. But Santorum will focus his message on his own plans to bolster manufacturing, and on Romney’s liability as an architect of ObamaCare. The Romney who won Michigan in 2008 was then the more conservative candidate against McCain. But he isn’t likely to best Santorum, of unquestioned credentials with social conservatives, Roman Catholics, evangelical Christians and Tea Party supporters. Those voters are all currently flocking to Santorum in key states including Ohio, where he now leads Romney as well.

A critical challenge for Romney in Michigan is winning support among white voters who earn less than $50,000 a year, which is less than what the unemployed Romney earns per day from income from his investments. A recent Washington Post poll showed that his favorability rating among these voters has dropped 20 points since he released his tax returns and made numerous gaffes about money, including that earning $375,000 in one year for speaking fees was “not so much” money.

Romney doesn’t want the Michigan race to come down to blue collar versus blue blood, as that is a race he is likely to lose. And if losing Michigan means limping through Super Tuesday and letting Santorum catch him in delegates, then Romney can perhaps kiss his presidential hopes goodbye. 

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.