DETROIT - This state may be the focal point for the Republican primary candidates over the next five days, but there are also stealth factors at play: President Obama and his supporters are already laying the groundwork here for the general election, trying to frame it as a choice between the savior of the auto industry and Republican opponents who would have let it shrink.
Obama’s campaign will start airing an ad across Michigan today, touting the success of the auto bailout and disparaging Mitt Romney and others for opposing the plan. This week, a super PAC supporting Obama, Priorities USA Action, started running an ad criticizing Romney on the bailout, as well as on his background as a private equity executive.
“There’s little question he made a fortune from businesses he helped destroy,’’ a deep-voiced narrator intones. “Are those the values we want in an American president?’’ Romney is also shown saying “Let Detroit go bankrupt,’’ as the last word echoes several times throughout the 30-second spot.
With polls showing a razor-thin primary race - as Romney fights in the state he grew up in against insurgent Rick Santorum - Democrats have twin goals in mind. They want to take Romney, their most feared GOP opponent, down a notch, while also beginning to test arguments that could be deployed in a state that months from now will be a crucial battleground.
The state Democratic Party is openly encouraging members of the party to vote in the Republican primary Tuesday, with hopes of preventing Romney from winning. When Romney addresses the Detroit Economic Club today at Ford Field, the United Auto Workers union will hold a rally outside to protest.
At Obama’s state campaign headquarters yesterday, there were about a half dozen volunteers making cellphone calls. One wall had a dry-erase board with scribbled ideas for enhancing the voter registration operation (including going to nightclubs, carwashes, and continuing education classes). Another was the “Ward Wall,’’ containing folders identifying volunteers in each of Detroit’s 22 wards.
There were handouts that listed various benefits from Obama administration policies, from the number of Michigan families receiving middle-income tax cuts to the number of residents with preexisting medical conditions who will be covered under Obama’s health care law.
The campaign has eight offices across Michigan - many of which have been open since April - and more than a dozen paid staffers. By contrast, Romney has one office, which opened several weeks ago, and one paid staffer in Michigan.
It is all an illustration of how vital the Obama campaign sees Michigan to its general election strategy, and how it is trying to prevent Republicans from winning the state for the first time since 1988 - perhaps with a native son on the ticket. Jimmy Carter in 1976 was the last Democrat to win the White House without carrying Michigan. He lost the state to President Gerald Ford, who had been a longtime Michigan congressman, but still won the presidency.
“Obama knows he has to win Michigan. It’s very simple, if he doesn’t win Michigan, he’s not going to be elected. Period,’’ said Bill Ballenger, editor of the Inside Michigan Politics newsletter and a former Republican lawmaker. “They think [the bailout] is a winning issue, and if Romney’s the nominee he’s probably going to be up against it.’’
Michigan is a state that could have easily flown under the political radar just weeks ago. Romney was the far-and-away primary favorite, with strong roots in the state and the most prominent endorsements. But that rapidly shifted once Santorum won three states earlier this month and seized the momentum of those looking for a Romney alternative.
A poll released yesterday by the Detroit Free Press showed Santorum with a slight lead over Romney - 37 percent to 34 percent - that still fell within the margin of error. Nearly half of voters said they could change their mind before Tuesday’s primary, an illustration of the volatile race. Nearly 6 in 10 voters said they did not think of Romney as a Michigander.
Perhaps indicating that his opposition to the auto bailout could play a factor, 12 percent of likely Republican primary voters said the thing they disliked most about Romney was his opposition to bailing out General Motors and Chrysler.
Democrats have targeted Romney nearly every time he has come to the state. When he went to a suburban diner last year, union workers picketed. When he came for a debate in November, several Democratic congressmen staged a press conference outside an auto plant. Yesterday, the Obama campaign released a new ad that will run alongside Republican primary ads.
The ad, called “Made in America,’’ begins with an image of an American flag patch stitched onto a worker’s shirt.
“When 1 million jobs were on the line, every Republican candidate turned their back. Even said, ‘Let Detroit go bankrupt,’ ’’ the narrator says as images flash of workers on auto factory lines.
The Obama campaign ad will run through Monday in four media markets, and on both cable and broadcast television.
Amanda Henneberg, a Romney spokeswoman, called the ad “desperate.’’
“The last thing President Obama and his team want to do is face Mitt Romney in the general election,’’ she said. “Their factually false television ad proves they are more focused on Mitt Romney than they are on getting Michiganders back to work.’’
In Phoenix yesterday, Romney lambasted Santorum for declaring in Wednesday night’s debate that he “took one for the team’’ and voted for the federal No Child Left Behind education law as a favor to President Bush, even though he opposed it on principle.
“He talked about this as being ‘taking one for the team,’ ’’ Romney told a meeting of the Associated Builders and Contractors at the Arizona Biltmore. “I want to know which team he was taking it for. My team is the American people, not the insiders in Washington, and I’ll fight for the people of America.’’
Michael Levenson of the Globe staff also contributed to this report. Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.