TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. - In the final hours before tomorrow’s all-important Republican primary here, Mitt Romney is casting himself as the scrappy underdog, a reflection of how much the political landscape has been redrawn by Rick Santorum’s last-minute surge.
“I think I can show I can fight real hard and come from behind,’’ Romney said yesterday on “Fox News Sunday.’’ “I’m planning on winning here in Michigan, and also in Arizona. That’ll be huge, having come from so far behind here in Michigan.’’
Romney was born and raised in Michigan. He has vastly outspent his rivals in the state, won coveted endorsements, and until two weeks ago had a comfortable lead in the polls. Now those polls show a dead heat.
Primaries in Michigan and Arizona are the first major contests since Romney’s convincing win in Florida last month prompted talk of him wrapping up the nomination early. Now, however, a loss for Romney in his native state would be a crippling blow, with only a week to recover before Super Tuesday’s 11-state blitz on March 6.
Such a result would almost ensure that the nominating contest would extend deep into the spring - and perhaps to the convention.
“If Romney doesn’t win the state of his birth then people will look seriously at whether he is viable at all,’’ said Michael Heaney, a political science professor at the University of Michigan. “Even people within the Republican establishment are going to start rethinking their support, and money could start moving toward Santorum.’’
Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, is counting on that.
“You have an opportunity here in Michigan to shock the country,’’ Santorum said on Saturday at a Tea Party forum in Troy.
Even a close second would buoy Santorum by further solidifying his hold on the country’s heartland, Heaney said.
Santorum won in Iowa, Missouri, and Minnesota, and a win in Michigan would strengthen his position in neighboring Ohio, one of the jewels of Super Tuesday.
In addition, doing well in a general-election swing state such as Michigan would inoculate Santorum from charges that he can win only states with a very conservative Republican base. He also posted an upset win over Romney two weeks ago in Colorado, which is thought to be up for grabs in the fall.
Romney’s campaign workers sense the stakes. As they have flooded the airwaves with ads and flaunted the endorsement of Michigan governor Rick Snyder, a super PAC supporting Romney has pummeled Santorum with $2.4 million in commercials this month, according to the Sunlight Foundation, a campaign finance watchdog group.
That amount, from Restore Our Future, doubles the amount spent by Red, White, and Blue, a super PAC supporting Santorum.
As in Florida, Romney’s surrogates have been showing up at Santorum events to offer a bit of counterprogramming.
Romney’s campaign has been so aggressive in calling voters to get them out to the polls that one woman complained to him that she had been called nine times over five days. (“I’m disappointed to hear you received nine calls. You should have received a lot more than that,’’ Romney retorted.)
Thirty delegates are at stake in Michigan, and the other two candidates, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul, have largely ceded the campaign here. Most delegates will be awarded to candidates based on their performance in each of the state’s 14 congressional districts. That leaves open the possibility that one candidate could win the statewide popular vote, but another candidate could garner more delegates.
The campaign has been fought from the industrial pockets of a bedraggled Detroit to its rich northern suburbs, from the socially conservative towns of western Michigan to the rugged Upper Peninsula.
Santorum is expected to perform well in the western part of the state, where voters are more receptive to his focus on issues like abortion and gay marriage.
To endear himself to Michigan’s huge bloc of blue-collar voters, Santorum has played up his working-class roots to distinguish himself from Romney’s reputation as a member of the elite. Santorum has even gone as far as criticizing President Obama for wanting everybody to go to college.
“What a snob,’’ he told the Tea Party movement gathering in Troy. “There are good, decent men and women who go out and work hard every day and put their skills to test that aren’t taught by some liberal college professor trying to indoctrinate them.’’
Santorum’s rise has also forced a shift in Romney’s focus. His campaign had originally intended to use Michigan as a proxy battleground against Obama, shifting toward the middle as a preview of a fall showdown. Instead, he has found the need to explicitly court Tea Party activists, appearing at several events before conservatives who have often been skeptical of his health care law in Massachusetts and what they call his political pliability.
“They don’t want any patty-cake Republican, no kumbaya,’’ said Attorney General Bill Schuette, who is Romney’s state chairman. “It’s very significant. It’s all these segments you put together. It’s the Tea Party conservative, it’s the economic conservative, it’s the social conservative, it’s the traditional GOP activist. It’s all those slices of the Republican pie we want to meld together.’’
Romney won the 2008 Republican primary in Michigan, in part by saying he would stem the job losses tied to a faltering auto industry.
After Senator John McCain told voters that Romney was pandering and some of those jobs “are not coming back,’’ Romney said he was “not willing to accept defeat like that.’’
But months after the campaign, Romney wrote an opinion piece for The New York Times headlined, “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.’’ In it, Romney opposed the federal bailout for the auto industry, predicting if there was a bailout “you can kiss the automotive industry goodbye.’’ Romney argued the industry should go through a managed bankruptcy.
The auto bailout itself has not been an issue in the Republican primary, since all of the candidates generally agree with Romney.
But Santorum has cast Romney as inconsistent because he supported the Wall Street bailout. Democrats and auto unions have also used the issue to mobilize their forces, in anticipation of facing Romney in the general election.
Obama’s campaign is already organizing in Michigan, and has been running several ads in recent days. Democrats could also play a role in the Republican primary since it is open to independents and Democrats. Some within GOP circles have suggested there could be a bit of mischief-making at play with Democrats voting against Romney to weaken him.
More than anything else, though, Romney is relying on his roots to stabilize his candidacy. He recounts stories about his father, George, who served as governor here at the end of Michigan’s heyday. Said Romney, “He was as close to perfect as anyone I know.’’Matt Viser can be reached at email@example.com. Bobby Caina Calvan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.