Elections
Republican presidential candidate former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks at a campaign rally in Mesa, Ariz., Monday, Feb. 13, 2012. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert) Republican presidential candidate former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks at a campaign rally in Mesa, Ariz., Monday, Feb. 13, 2012. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)  

With Santorum surging, Romney faces crucial test in Michigan primary

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Will Rahn
Senior Editor

Once seen as an easy win for Mitt Romney, Michigan’s upcoming Republican primary is quickly turning into an uphill battle for the former Massachusetts governor in his struggle against the resurgent Rick Santorum.

Romney’s roots in the Wolverine State initially indicated that he would walk away with the primary the same way he did in 2008. He was born and raised in Michigan, where his father George Romney was a popular three-term governor in the 1960s. In 2004, Mitt became an effective surrogate for President George W. Bush in Michigan, and helped force Democratic nominee John Kerry to spend valuable time campaigning there instead of in swing states like Ohio.

After a losing several caucuses to Santorum, however, Romney now finds himself trailing the former Pennsylvania senator in three recent polls. And should Romney lose the primary despite his financial and organizational muscle in the state, the race could be become a two-man race that would threaten his perceived front-runner status and throw his much vaunted “electability” into question.

There are several reasons why Santorum is taking off in what has long been considered Romney’s home turf. Paul Abramson, a political science professor at Michigan State University, told The Daily Caller that, for one thing, Romney’s appeal in the state has been exaggerated.

“Although we say it’s his home state, it hasn’t been his home state for a long time,” Abramson said.

Furthermore, Abramson argued, Romney’s opposition to the popular auto bailout and his famous “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt” New York Times op-ed resonate more with Michigan voters than his father’s accomplishments as governor.

“It’s true that people who are voting in the Republican primary were not the most enthusiastic backers of that bailout,” Abramson said. “But still, given the recovery of the domestic auto industry — it’s one thing to say that the recovery would have been greater with no bailout. But that’s quite problematic, and that bailout has led to a big turnaround in Michigan, where we now have a state budget surplus.”

“I would be very reluctant to bet on Romney to win the Michigan primary at this stage,” Abramson said. (RELATED: Full coverage of the 2012 elections)

John Dunagan, a Republican strategist who ran Bush’s 2004 operation in Michigan, also feels that Romney’s ties to Michigan probably won’t amount to very much given Santorum’s appeal to the conservative blue collar and evangelical voters who vote in the state’s Republican primaries. This, he said, helps explain both Santorum’s surge and Romney’s success four years ago.

“What’s ironic is that [in 2008] Romney was the conservative alternative, at least for a little while, to Senator [John] McCain,” Dunagan said. “And now Santorum seems to be working as the conservative alternative to the nominal front-runner.”

To win, said Dunagan, Romney must dominate the comparatively moderate Detroit suburbs while “playing even” with Santorum in more rural and conservative areas.

“And that will be a challenge for [Romney],” Dunagan said, in large part because Santorum’s emphasis on bringing back manufacturing jobs and record on social issues.

Dunagan said he believes that the end result in Michigan will be “quite close” and that Romney is likely to implement an expensive “whatever it takes” strategy similar to his aggressive Florida operation, which successfully targeted former House Speaker Newt Gingrich with frequent negative ads.

And while Dunagan thinks that Romney is still considered by the media to be the front-runner, a loss in Michigan might change the national narrative and cause pundits to declare the race a wide-open, two-man showdown where anything could happen.

“Then we’ve sort of hit the reset button on the media primary so it’s now started over,” Dunagan said. “And then the money typically follows that, so if Santorum’s fundraising takes off, that’s obviously even more challenging for Gov. Romney.”

The Michigan primary will take place on February 28.

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