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February 28, 2012 5:37 pm

Romney Hopes Michigan Treats Him as a Son in Tonight’s Primary

avatar by Dmitriy Shapiro

Mitt Romney. Photo: Gage Skidmore.

Two weeks ago, the race for the 2012 Republican Party presidential nomination witnessed another upset. The surge in national and state polls of former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum seemed like an unlikely prospect for observers of the race until that point. Nobody thought that the timid former Senator, who lost an election bid for Senate in his own state, possessing socially conservative views that were deemed too extreme even by most Republican standards, would engineer a challenge to the frontrunner on such a meager campaign budget. The biggest surprise is that Santorum is challenging former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s behemoth campaign, in what was considered his safest state; his home state of Michigan, which he handily won in 2008 over Sen. John McCain. Today, as Michigan votes in their primary, polls indicate that the race is too close to call.

Michigan was supposed to be an undisputed Romney victory; the state where Romney was born and raised; where his father, George Romney, served as an automotive CEO and a popular Governor, which included a short stint running for his own presidential nomination.

An upset for Santorum in Michigan would preclude hysteria in the party struggling to coalesce under one candidate. Romney’s campaign would be forced to seriously reconsider their strategy and desperately fight to retain their moneyed supporters; many of whom signed onto the campaign in an air of inevitability early in the primary.

Romney’s history in Michigan is his biggest asset. Older voters fondly remember the popularity of his father’s governorship, and automotive industry leadership.  Almost every aspect of Michigan’s economy is intertwined with the health of the industry. Romney’s father was a player during some of the best times in the industry’s memory, making this connection essential to Mitt’s popularity.. Even if Romney spent most of his business and political career elsewhere, Michigan voters consider him one of their own.

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Santorum’s challenge in Michigan seems strange. But one should also remember that even if the majority of Michigan’s citizens have some connection to the auto industry, there is still a strong social conservative block thriving in less urban parts of the state. Areas deeply tied to the church; where large families home school their children; where the Duggars, who are campaigning on Santorum’s behalf, will feel right at home.

But for average voters, Santorum may be a just a flirtation.

Romney’s single moment of dissonance with Michigan voters stems from an incendiary Op-Ed he wrote for the New York Times, when the auto executives were lobbying the federal government for handouts that they felt were essential to save their industry from complete collapse, arguing against the federal bailouts. By in large, automotive workers applauded the initiative by the executives to save their jobs, even if many of them would usually oppose government bailouts because of their political stance. Santorum wisely sensed this weakness and made much of the issue to attack Romney. Although, after 2 weeks on top of the polls, the Santorum campaign’s public relation slips provided Romney with ample time to blitz Michigan airwaves with positive, sentimental Michigan ads to quickly reclaim voters’ affection.

Oakland University Political Science professor, Dr. Roger Larocca, agrees:

“He’s [Santorum] made himself vulnerable in ways which won’t be very much exploited by his opponents, but would definitely be exploited by the administration in the general election – and I think that kind of vulnerability makes people wary about his chances in the fall. That’s really the big issue.”

Although Santorum positioned himself as the friend of the blue collar worker, his support of union collective bargaining rights in Pennsylvania is rubbing voters the wrong way. Union membership in Michigan is high, but the relationship is not always symbiotic. Those who support the unions would vote for Democrats anyway, but those who align with Republicans, view their own unions as unnecessary and interfering with their company’s successes through demands that were seemingly outrageous during the worst economic depression in Michigan’s history. This makes Santorum’s latest appeal for Democratic support to beat Romney, touting his pro-union votes, ultimately foolish. This cozying up to liberal causes will mar his conservative appearance in upcoming contests and the other candidates will have recent evidence that Santorum is a conservative out of convenience rather than principal.

While Santorum was busy fending off challenges to inconsistencies in his voting record, and his social conservative stances in last Wednesday’s CNN debate in Mesa, Ariz., Romney managed to clarify his position on auto bailouts when challenged by Santorum to explain his opposition to it, while supporting the general “Wall Street” bank bailouts.

Romney clarified his stance that a general financial collapse would doom every American industry while believing it is best for single industries to go through a managed bankruptcy.

“If they go through that managed bankruptcy and shed the excessive cost that’s been put on them by the UAW and by their own mismanagement,” said Romney, “then if they need help coming out of bankruptcy, the government can provided guarantees and get them back on their feet. No way would we allow the auto industry in America to totally implode and disappear.”

He continued:

“And the head of the UAW said, we can’t go through managed bankruptcy. The industry will disappear if that happens. And the politicians, Barack Obama’s people, oh no, we can’t go through managed bankruptcy. Six months they wrote, I think it was $17 billion in checks to the auto companies. Then they finally realized I was right. They finally put them through managed bankruptcy. That was the time they needed the help to get out of managed bankruptcy. Those monies they put in beforehand were — it was wasted money. And number two, because they put that money in, the president gave the companies to the UAW, they were part of the reason the companies were in trouble. Giving these companies to the UAW was wrong.”

As usual, Romney’s electability is an important factor for his supporters, since fervent religiosity rarely plays a significant role in Michigan’s political dialogue. Rather, practicality is motivating Michigan voters after difficult lessons learned from last decade’s economic doldrums.

“I think the main thing is, and I think it’s largely talked about, is that he’s not trusted as a conservative, that he’s viewed as a moderate. People are worried about the fact that Obamacare looks so much like what he did in Massachusetts. On the other hand, the fact that he is seen as the more moderate candidate – and has been portrayed constantly as the more moderate candidate – probably makes him a much more attractive candidate for the general election,” says Dr. Larocca.

“The GOP will never win the presidency just by winning only Republican voters. There is about 1/3 of the electorate that is Republican, 1/3 Democrat, and 1/3 Independent; and really the fight is over the 1/3 of the electorate in the middle; which went strongly for Obama in 2008. The question whether they will go for Obama or one of these Republican candidates may depend a lot on what that Republican candidate looks like. I think Mitt, of all the candidates that are still in right now, has the strongest appeal to those moderate voters.”

Michigan political consultant Brian Koss disagrees. Koss, the owner of White Pine Consulting in Shelby Township, Mich., sees Romney’s failure to forge ahead in his own home state as a bad omen for the general election.

“It’s not about being moderate, it’s about being able to connect with people,” says Koss. “A lot of people like to believe that Romney is the most electable candidate and I challenge that notion simply because I think he has the least appeal to blue-collar voters; and it will be blue-collar voters that will decide elections in the Midwest. I don’t think he identifies with the average American very well.”

Santorum’s support is also coming as an organized effort by Tea Party groups, who in Michigan, are intent on supporting anyone but Romney; fervently organizing rallies and town hall events for Santorum to counteract Romney’s flood of resources.

“Romney’s organizational and institutional support in Michigan is a real advantage for him, but at the same time, you really didn’t see his campaign become active until two or three weeks ago when they realized the poll numbers weren’t looking very good,” says Koss.  “So they’ve really sprang into action in the last couple weeks trying to put their campaign together. They’ve always sort of assumed that Michigan was in the bag for them and now they’re seeing that it may not be. I don’t know if I want to make a prediction whether or not he will win, but I think he’s got some institutional advantages whereas Santorum seems to have resurging momentum behind him.”

Tonight’s results, will test whether Romney’s organizational superiority can withstand another attack from grassroots momentum that has so far served Rick Satnorum. But in Michigan, there’s a chance that his native son appeal may serve to overcome this trend and continue his slow but steady progress to the GOP nomination.

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