The standing-room-only crowd crammed into a Holiday Inn conference room in this industrial city roared with approval as Rick Santorum served up applause lines on why Michigan Republicans should choose him, not native-son Mitt Romney, as the GOP presidential nominee. Santorum's message, heavy on religious values and contempt for bailouts, was perfect for an audience in this stronghold of social conservatism and tea party sentiment.
But Santorum's campaign couldn't fully capitalize on the moment, revealing a shortcoming that Romney hopes will help him win Tuesday's primary despite the surging enthusiasm and favorable poll numbers for his chief opponent.
Santorum's campaign organization is so sparse in Michigan that no one was available to collect the names and email addresses of the people streaming out of the hall after the speech, a practice that's a staple of political organizing and get-out-the-vote efforts. By contrast, Romney has a deep and experienced organization working in every corner of the state. Seven of Michigan's nine Republican congressmen have tapped their campaign networks to help Romney put out calls, set up events and harvest donors.
"Mitt has a great advantage as far as having boots on the ground," said Jim Thienel, GOP chairman in Oakland County, an affluent area where virtually the entire Republican party apparatus is part of the Romney campaign.
In this contest of organization against momentum, Romney is pushing for the resounding victory that will bolster his position as the GOP front-runner. A strong showing by Santorum in the state where Romney grew up and where Romney's father, George, was governor would underscore that the race is still an open contest.
Politically, Michigan is divided between the urban southeastern area around Detroit, where corporate executives such as the Romneys long have dominated party affairs, and the more rural and small-town regions in the west and north, where Christian evangelism and anti-government fervor abound.
In the urban business arena, Romney's support is overwhelming. His finance committee is headed by the state's leading business executives, from John Rakolta, chairman and CEO of construction giant Walbridge, to Quicken Loans founder and Cleveland Cavaliers owner Daniel Gilbert.
Romney's background as head of a venture capital firm and his emphasis on job creation and tax reduction resonate loudly here.
His connections in the state party leadership are pervasive. He has collected the endorsements of Gov. Rick Snyder and all of Michigan's top legislative leaders.
In recent weeks, organizers have summoned hundreds of Romney volunteers to hotel conference rooms to hear pep talks from top campaign officials and get their campaign assignments. Volunteers were signed up to drive voters to the polls and shown how to tap into the Romney campaign's high-tech phone tree so they could urge their friends to vote.
The list of elected officials enlisted to work with the Romney campaign goes on for more than four pages. The core of Santorum's campaign is largely two people: Glenn Clark, a conservative activist from the Detroit suburb of Troy who has headed the Michigan Faith and Freedom Coalition, and John Yob, a strategist from Michigan who worked for Herman Cain until Cain suspended his campaign. Santorum hasn't released the names of prominent Michigan supporters.
But Santorum's victories this month in Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado have excited conservatives in rural Michigan who are attracted by his religious fundamentalism and blue-color roots as the grandson of a coal miner.
Michigan also is home to more than 50 tea party groups. Even with little help organizing his rallies, Santorum has been able to bring out large crowds to hear his attacks on Romney's support for the federal rescue of failing Wall Street firms and his abortion rights position when he was governor of Massachusetts.
"I see Mitt Romney as more of a politician who has flip-flopped on some issues," said Hal Sisson, a 57-year-old media consultant from Norton Shores near Muskegon who, like Santorum, has seven children. "Rick Santorum has repeatedly been very conservative and has always stuck by his principles."
At the final stop of a recent campaign swing through Grand Rapids, however, the weaknesses of Santorum's campaign were apparent. He was given only 10 minutes to speak at an event at which Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell, a Romney surrogate, was the keynote attraction.
Even in the most conservative areas, Romney's organization has brought in major donors. Romney has raised $1.62 million in Michigan to Santorum's $42,365, according to data released last week by the Federal Election Commission.
Santorum doesn't have campaign offices in any of the state's congressional districts where supporters can get information or help out with phone banks. A lot of Santorum backers instead are reaching out through their email and social media networks to spread the word about him, Clark said.
Romney can draw some comfort from Michigan's 2008 GOP presidential contest, which he won by 9 percentage points. Polls showed Romney and Arizona Sen. John McCain locked in a close contest, but Romney's strong organization prevailed against a much weaker McCain operation.
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