Michigan biggest head-to-head fight for Romney, Santorum

Reuters News
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Posted: Feb 15, 2012 5:43 PM
Michigan biggest head-to-head fight for Romney, Santorum

By Samuel P. Jacobs

DETROIT (Reuters) - After weeks of skirmishes, the two leading Republican presidential candidates are locked in their biggest head-to-head battle in Michigan - one that tests Mitt Romney's status as the favorite in the race and Rick Santorum's ability to go beyond an insurgent campaign.

Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and private equity executive, and Santorum, the former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, have launched negative ads against each other in the big Midwestern state that holds its primary on February 28.

Romney needs to win the primary to dispel doubts about the viability of his White House bid. Romney's opposition to the U.S. government bailout of Michigan automakers in 2009 may come back to haunt him as Santorum rises in polls following victories in February 7 contests in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri.

Santorum has taken a risk by choosing Michigan as a battleground to take on Romney, who has family ties to Michigan and a strong organization in the economically distressed state.

But a poll of 450 likely Michigan Republican primary voters released on Tuesday found Santorum leading Romney 34 percent to 25 percent in the state. According to the Mitchell/Rosetta Stone Poll, Santorum is outpacing Romney in Michigan among voters who identify themselves as members of the conservative Tea Party movement, evangelical Christians and the "very conservative."

Nationwide, the former underdog Santorum now leads Romney in polls of Republican voters by several percentage points.

The Republican candidates are waging a state-by-state battle to win the party's nomination to challenge President Barack Obama, a Democrat, in the November 6 U.S. election.

Santorum is braced to come under a heavy barrage of attacks from Romney, whose negative ads helped destroy opponent Newt Gingrich's efforts earlier in the campaign in Iowa and Florida.

'ROMBO' COMMERCIAL

Trying to pre-empt Romney's assault, Santorum on Wednesday released his own negative ad that accuses his rival of slinging mud at fellow Republicans.

"Mitt Romney's negative attack machine is back. On full throttle. This time Romney's firing his mud at Rick Santorum," says the ad, entitled "Rombo" and running in Michigan as well as online. The ad shows a man who looks like Romney firing mud from a gun in a disused factory at a moving target of Santorum.

It is an attempt to lessen the harm from a pro-Romney group, Restore Our Future, that has bought $640,000 in airtime in Michigan so far to paint Santorum as a Washington insider who favored big federal spending during his time in the Senate.

"Santorum voted to raise the debt limit five times and for billions in wasteful projects," the pro-Romney ad says.

Romney is due to speak in Grand Rapids on Wednesday evening, taking the fight to Santorum in a part of the state that is likely to favor Santorum, a social conservative.

Conversely, Santorum on Thursday will address the Detroit Economic Club, a bastion of the kind of pro-business Republicans who back Romney, the former Bain Capital executive.

Santorum also opposed Obama's $81 billion auto bailout but was less vocal than Romney, who described the car company rescue as "crony capitalism" in an op-ed piece in The Detroit News this week.

Adding to the sense that Santorum's rise is no mere fad, senior Obama campaign adviser David Axelrod targeted Santorum during an appearance on the CBS program "This Morning."

"I don't think the average working person in this country is going to look at his policies and say, 'Yeah, that's the ticket for me," Axelrod said.

In the past week, Santorum's views on the role of women in the workplace and in the military have landed him in hot water.

Romney was born in Michigan. His father, George Romney, was governor from 1963 to 1969. Although Romney now has homes in New Hampshire, Massachusetts and California, he will claim Michigan as home, at least for the next two weeks.

Santorum has stressed his Pennsylvania background and strong religious faith as the right fit for many of Michigan's working-class voters. Around one-third of Michigan voters are Roman Catholic like him.

As the insurgent candidate, Santorum lacks the money and organization that Romney possesses.

Michigan officials and party activists said they doubt Santorum's rise in the state will last until primary day.

"I don't see the infrastructure in place. I don't see them doing what they need to do to win," said Bill Nowling, the former communications director for the Michigan Republican Party.

A victory for either man could prove a crucial launching pad for their campaigns heading into "Super Tuesday," when 10 states hold nominating contests on March 6.

Both Santorum and Romney will hit Obama hard for the weakness of Michigan's economy. But many in the state see signs of growth, including a dropping unemployment rate and an unexpected $457 million surplus for the state's budget.

Even a decent second-place finish could be work for Santorum, who long lingered near the bottom of the Republican pack for much of the campaign. On Tuesday, he said in Idaho that he hopes to "finish a good, strong second" in Michigan.

(Additional reporting by Susan Heavey in Washington; Editing by Alistair Bell and Will Dunham)