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The Boston Globe

Politics

Could victory in Michigan shift Rick Santorum’s narrative from scrappy underdog to front-runner?

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- At what point does Rick Santorum get anointed front-runner status, no longer portrayed as the scrappy challenger taking on the better-funded establishment candidate?

“I like that narrative. That sounds good,” Santorum said, while responding to a reporter’s question today at his Grand Rapids field office.

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Certainly, a win in Michigan could help thrust the former Pennsylvania senator to such a position, but Santorum was making no predictions on the outcome here as voters streamed into precincts.

Santorum started the month well behind in the polls in Michigan against Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor. By touting his conservative credentials, Santorum now threatens to steal a victory in Romney’s birthstate.

“I think the reason we’re doing well here in Michigan is because ... what we’re saying is resonating,” Santorum said.

A victory in Michigan, “shows that we’re the candidate that connects with the voters at a level that we need, in order to win this race in the fall, particularly in the key states,” Santorum said.

“Key states are going to decide this race,” Santorum told reporters, noting that Romney’s strongholds so far in campaign -- the Northeast and parts of the Mountain West -- won’t decide the race. “It’s not a very good combination for a Republican to deliver victory,” he said. “It’s the Midwest.”

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Santorum is counting on the industrial belt to help him win the nomination, which seemed like such a longshot just a month ago. He spent a few hours in Ohio today to build support. Polls show him leading Romney there.

But as all of the remaining GOP candidates know, especially Romney, polls shift quickly and leads can evaporate almost overnight.

Before the primary season went into full swing, many analysts were predicting a cakewalk for Romney. That’s no longer the case. The 10-state Super Tuesday free for all could portend the chaos yet to come in the GOP nomination process.

The outcome in Michigan could yet be another shift.

Throughout the campaign, Romney has sparred with his rivals over his conservative credentials. Santorum today referred to the former Massachusetts governor as a “lightweight as a conservative” when it comes to accomplishments, calling himself the heavyweight in the battle for such voters.

Santorum credited Romney for his business acumen, but added: “I’m not running for a CEO of a company.”

Nor would he elaborate on which states he expects to win on Super Tuesday. “We’re going to work them all,” he said.

Bobby Caina Calvan can be reached at bobby.calvan@globe.com. Follow him on twitter @GlobeCalvan.

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