ROCKFORD, Mich. - Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney yesterday accused each other of being unfit for the Republican presidential nomination in the finale to a primary vote today that could reshape the contest once again.
Santorum called Romney “uniquely unqualified’’ to be the nominee, saying his rival’s Massachusetts health care plan would hinder Republicans from criticizing President Obama’s similar federal plan. He also again described Romney’s claim of conservatism as laughable. “Michigan, you have the opportunity to stop the joke,’’ Santorum said.
Romney, for his part, called Santorum “a nice guy but he’s never had a job in the private sector. . . . I think to create jobs it helps to have a guy as president who’s had a job.’’
With polls showing a dead heat, Romney is hoping to prevent an embarrassing defeat in his native state that would rattle his campaign and probably draw the race out for months. Santorum is hoping to shock the political establishment by beating Romney and sowing fresh doubts over the former Massachusetts governor’s ability to win over social conservatives and blue-collar workers in a general election battleground state.
“You have the chance to be the inflection point in this race,’’ Santorum told a packed ballroom at a Lansing hotel. “Don’t miss the opportunity to stand up. And don’t believe those who say we can’t elect someone who is conservative, that we have to elect a moderate.’’
The state has become a two-candidate race. Representative Ron Paul of Texas continued to campaign in Detroit and Lansing in hopes of winning a few delegates, but former House speaker Newt Gingrich was stumping yesterday in Tennessee, one of the Super Tuesday states.
The results today will go a long way toward establishing whether Romney can get his march to the nomination back on track, or whether the party will be willing to turn toward a socially conservative Catholic who has been trying to broaden his support among the working class in this Rust Belt state.
As part of that effort, the Santorum campaign acknowledged that it has included Democrats, who are eligible to vote in the primary, in its automated telephone appeals. A Romney spokesman, Ryan Williams, said it was “outrageous that Rick Santorum is inviting Democrats into the Republican primary to vote against Mitt Romney.’’ In defense of the outreach to Democrats, Alice Stewart, a Santorum spokeswoman, said, “We’ve been clear all along that we need to engage conservatives and need to attract Reagan Democrats.’’
Romney, after spending several weeks trying to bolster his socially conservative credentials, shifted gears yesterday and began criticizing Santorum for not spending enough time talking about economic concerns.
“It’s time for him to really focus on the economy, and for you to all say, ‘OK, if the economy’s going to be the issue we focus on, who has the experience to actually get this economy going again?’ ’’ Romney told a crowd of about 250 at an electrical manufacturer in Rockford.
Arizona is also holding its primary today, with 29 delegates at stake. Unlike Michigan, the contest is winner-take-all, and polls in recent days have shown Romney with a comfortable lead.
But the results in Michigan today will have far more resonance. It is the state where Romney grew up, where his father governed for three terms, and where he has told stories to voters of his upbringing.
If he’s unable to win in Michigan, critics say, it will illustrate deep doubts over his chances of winning in other key states.
His advisers expressed confidence yesterday, saying they expected to win and gain momentum for Super Tuesday next week, when 10 states will vote.
“This sure has been fun, these last 10 days or so,’’ Romney said yesterday. “We started down about 15 points in the polls. Now we’re leading in the poll.’’
The campaign in Michigan has played out similarly to those in several other states where Romney has fought from behind. His campaign and its supporters used a slew of negative television ads to tag Santorum as an unprincipled Washington insider.
Romney’s campaign and the Restore Our Future super PAC that supports him spent $2.3 million to air ads 4,341 times on Michigan broadcast television stations through Feb. 23, according to data cited by Bloomberg News from New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG. Santorum and the Red White and Blue Fund super PAC spent $1.5 million to air ads 3,721 times.
The campaigns are a study in contrasts. Santorum’s events are unorganized, and his speeches meander for more than an hour. Romney’s campaign is tightly controlled, and each speech lasts little more than 25 minutes. Santorum frequently takes questions from the media, while Romney has gone nearly three weeks without a press conference.
Santorum yesterday cast himself as the candidate who can deliver hope and optimism to a country beleaguered by high unemployment, soaring gas prices, and the constant uncertainty over a long-awaited economic recovery.
Santorum began his day in Livonia, a suburb of Detroit, for a breakfast meeting with members of a regional chamber of commerce before heading west to Lansing and Kalamazoo, deep in the heart of Michigan’s conservative region.
At stops in Livonia and Lansing, Santorum said he would deliver the economy back to health and put the country back on course, and went through the major touchstones of his campaign: simplifying the tax code, halving the corporate tax, reforming Social Security, and repealing Obama’s health care law. He portrayed himself as the true conservative and the more qualified candidate.
He pounced on Romney for supporting the Wall Street bailout while opposing the government’s intervention to aid the auto industry. “At least I was consistent,’’ said Santorum, who opposed both.
Santorum spent most of his time yesterday aiming barbs at Obama and only occasionally referred to Romney - and not by name.
Santorum railed against Obama for what the former Pennsylvania senator considers his failed energy policies. Santorum blames those policies for high gas prices and stifling job creation. And he took shots against Obama’s positions on the country’s entitlement programs.
If he had been among the founding fathers, Santorum said, “he would have written the Declaration of Dependence.’’
He also faulted Romney for “buying into’’ the myth, he suggested, of manmade global warming, saying that as governor, Romney put in place caps on carbon emissions. Santorum said global warming was based on “political science.’’
Romney and Santorum also sparred over economic proposals. Santorum wrote an opinion article published yesterday by the Wall Street Journal.
“Mitt Romney had a last-minute conversion,’’ Santorum wrote. “Attempting to distract from his record of tax and fee increases as governor of Massachusetts, poor job creation, and aggressive pursuit of earmarks, he now says he wants to follow my lead and lower individual as well as corporate marginal tax rates.’’
“It’s a good start,’’ Santorum added. “But it doesn’t go nearly far enough.’’
Romney mentioned Santorum’s article at his first event yesterday, saying, “I’m glad he recognizes this is going to be a campaign about the economy.’’
He then said he - not Santorum - was uniquely capable of fixing the economy.
Yesterday evening, Romney sounded a confident note about both the primary and the general election.
“I’m going to win in Michigan and I’m going to win across the country,’’ Romney said at an auditorium in Royal Oak, just before Kid Rock took the stage. The bad-boy musician and Detroit native played Romney’s campaign theme song, “Born Free,’’ as Romney listened from the front row with his wife, Ann, waving his arms at least once along with the crowd.