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The Boston Globe

Politics

Poll: Rick Santorum leading Mitt Romney in Michigan

MESA, AZ - FEBRUARY 13: Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney waves to the crowd at a Get out the Vote Rally February 13, 2012 in Mesa, Arizona. Romney spoke to a crowd of more than 2,000 people, and is the first contender to visit the state prior to the primary on February 22, 2012. (Photo by Eric Thayer/Getty Images)

Eric Thayer/Getty Images

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney campaigned in Mesa, Arizona, yesterday.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is trying to blunt criticism over his position on the auto industry bailout, as he struggles to fend off his surging rival Rick Santorum in Michigan.

The Romney campaign is looking to Michigan, which holds its primary Feb. 28, to end Santorum’s momentum, after the former Pennsylvania senator won non-binding contests in Missouri, Colorado, and Minnesota. Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, won the Michigan primary in 2008. His father, George Romney, was an auto industry executive and Michigan governor. Mitt Romney grew up in the state.

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But polling released today from the American Research Group found Santorum leading Romney in Michigan among likely Republican primary voters, 33 percent to 27 percent. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich would come in third with 21 percent, followed by Texas Representative Ron Paul with 12 percent. Santorum’s lead is even stronger among those who say they will definitely vote in the GOP primary.

Santorum has been strengthened by a wave of support among Tea Party voters, and 37 percent of Tea Party supporters in Michigan said they favored Santorum, compared to 17 percent for Romney. Romney led among non-Tea Party supporters, with 35 percent. Republicans heavily favored Santorum, while independents would choose Romney. Men tended to prefer Santorum, while women liked Romney.

The Michigan poll is consistent with other national polls. A New York Times/CBS News poll this morning also put Santorum ahead of Romney nationally, with Santorum getting 30 percent support among Republican primary voters compared to 27 percent for Romney. The New York Times reported that Santorum’s surge is propelled by support from conservatives, evangelical Christians, and Tea Party supporters.

The ARG poll of 600 likely Republican primary voters was conducted Feb. 11-12 and has a margin of error of 4 percentage points. The New York Times poll of 331 Republican primary or caucus voters was conducted Feb. 8-13 and has a margin of error of 5 percentage points.

Perhaps Romney’s biggest Achilles heel in Michigan, home of the auto industry, is an op-ed he wrote in the New York Times in 2008 entitled “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.” “If General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler get the bailout that their chief executives asked for yesterday, you can kiss the American automotive industry goodbye,” Romney wrote.

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Romney argued that the automakers will not make necessary changes to their businesses – such as reducing workers’ pay and benefits and recruiting new management - if they are bailed out. Rather, he said, they should go through a managed bankruptcy.

Ultimately, the American automakers did receive a government bailout, Chrysler and GM went through managed bankruptcy, and the companies have continued operating successfully.

Today, Romney tried to preempt criticism on the issue by writing an op-ed for The Detroit News arguing that the government should sell its share in GM and give the proceeds to taxpayers. Romney criticized President Obama for giving labor unions major stakes in Chrysler and GM as part of the bailout. (The bailout was approved by President Bush but implemented by Obama.)

Romney defended his advocacy of a managed bankruptcy, as a way to allow the companies to restructure. He said the bankruptcies that took place were affected by the terms of the bailout. “American taxpayers have been left on the hook for billions to benefit unions and the union bosses who contributed millions to Barack Obama’s election campaign,” Romney wrote.

Romney said the Obama administration should divest itself of its ownership position in GM. “The shares need to be sold in a responsible fashion and the proceeds turned over to the nation’s taxpayers,” he wrote.

Shira Schoenberg can be reached at sschoenberg@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shiraschoenberg.

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