Romney, Santorum campaign in Michigan as primary looms

Posted: February 25, 2012

MILFORD, Mich. - His fine old boyhood home in the Palmer Park neighborhood of Detroit has since been bulldozed as a drug den, but Republican Mitt Romney reminisced about how fine it was, back when Woodward Avenue was paved with gold - well, spray painted, actually, for a parade celebrating the auto industry. That was before his dad, George, was governor of Michigan.

"Detroit was the pride of the nation," Romney said the other night. "I know they still have the parade of cars every year. . . . How sad it is, to see the city of Detroit suffering as it is now."

Fighting for his political life ahead of Tuesday's Michigan primary, Romney has clawed his way into a dead heat with a surging Rick Santorum, the conservative former Pennsylvania senator who swept nominating contests in Colorado, Missouri, and Minnesota two weeks ago.

Now, voters in Michigan - who will go to the polls the same day as those in Arizona - could indicate whether Romney has just hit a rough patch en route to the nomination, on his second try, or whether he is a hollow candidate unable to close the deal.

With Super Tuesday - when 10 states hold primaries or caucuses - just around the corner on March 6, analysts say that a loss by Romney on his home turf could trigger a stampede against him.

Different candidacy

Four years ago, Romney decisively defeated Sen. John McCain in the Michigan primary. Then, however, he was seen as the more conservative candidate; this time he is positioned as a moderate in contrast to Santorum, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas.

Polls show Santorum running best outstate, particularly in western Michigan, home to many social conservatives, and Romney doing best in the suburbs of Detroit.

Douglas Koopman, a political science professor at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, said that Santorum, who has stressed a plan to stimulate a resurgence in manufacturing with targeted tax cuts, is attractive to many Michigan voters because the state's economy has been down so long.

"It's a blue-collar state, demographically as well as emotionally and psychologically," Koopman said. "That's Santorum's sweet spot. He's angry and sharp - and that resonates everywhere but in the Detroit ring counties where the corporate Republicans are."

Four years ago, Romney beat McCain by about 80,000 votes, and 60,000 of those came from Oakland, Macomb, and Wayne Counties in the Detroit metro area.

Thirty delegates are at stake here Tuesday, with two delegates awarded to the winner in each of the state's 14 congressional districts and two more given to the candidate who draws the most votes statewide.

Focused

Tami Stevens went into Thursday's Milford event, organized by a coalition of tea party groups, leaning toward Santorum. When she left, she picked a discarded Romney sticker off the floor and pasted it on her coat.

"I might change my mind before the primary," said Stevens, from nearby Brighton. But she said she liked Romney's knowledge of the economy and his plans to cut taxes 20 percent across the board, and was reassured, after hearing him, that he is more focused and forceful than McCain was as the 2008 GOP standard-bearer.

"I worried he'd just be weak and wouldn't really stand up for his beliefs," she said of Romney. "I want somebody who can beat Obama. That's my bottom line."

Dennis Anderson said he would vote for Romney because of the former Massachusetts governor's business experience and air of competence - and because he is leery of Santorum's emphasis on social issues.

"I don't like it when politicians talk about social issues, where they shouldn't stick their noses in," said Anderson, 56, a sales manager. "Sometimes Santorum goes off the deep end with the religious stuff."

So far, Romney and his allies are outspending Santorum and his allies by about 2-1 on television ads in Michigan, attacking the former senator as a Washington "insider" who voted for increased government spending and has never worked in the private sector. Romney's team, which includes much of the state's GOP elite, emphasizes his experience in business.

'The best contrast'

"Rick Santorum has peaked - he came out of nowhere, and a lot of people didn't know much about him," said Saul Anuzis, a Romney supporter and former state party chairman. "Mitt Romney has survived several 'front-runners' " on the strength of his business experience.

"This election is about jobs and the economy, and Romney offers the best contrast to Obama," Anuzis said.

On Friday, Santorum dropped in at the Lenten fish fry run by the Dads' Club at St. William Catholic Church in Walled Lake, a town in Republican-dominated Oakland County in the northern suburbs of Detroit. As servers rushed trays of piping hot fried fish to tables of customers, Santorum entered the room to a bustle of TV cameras and a cheer.

"I love the smell of fish on a Friday in Lent," said Santorum, a Catholic and father of seven known for his conservative stands on social issues. "It's good to see so many children here. God bless you for keeping this tradition alive." Then he worked the room.

In recent weeks, Santorum has railed against an Obama administration policy that religious-affiliated schools, hospitals, and other institutions offer contraceptive coverage to employees in their health-insurance plans, agreeing with Catholic bishops who say that infringes on religious freedom.

"I like his basic family values," said Jill Byrd, 61, a retired teacher from Walled Lake who grew up in Philadelphia. "Santorum is the only candidate who is talking about what I believe in."

Her husband, Tom, said he liked Santorum's strong stand against Islamic extremists and emphasis on using any means necessary to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons. He does not like Romney.

"I don't know why, but there's something I just don't trust about Romney," said Tom Byrd, 54, who retired from General Motors' Ypsilanti transmission plant in 2009. "He doesn't seem honest. Maybe he has too much money."

Lance Pawloski, 52, skipped his own parish's fish fry in nearby White Lake because he heard Santorum was going to drop by.

"I believe Santorum is the one could stand up and register a knockout in a debate with Obama," Pawloski said. "He's not afraid."


Contact politics writer Thomas Fitzgerald at 215-854-2718, tfitzgerald@phillynews.com, or @tomfitzgerald on Twitter. Read his blog, "The Big Tent," at www.philly.com/BigTent.

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