Michigan: A Firewall for Romney—or the Bonfire of His Hopes?

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Mitt Romney's supporters believe there's no way he'll lose his home state. But Rick Santorum sees an opportunity to topple a fragile front-runner.

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There are two ways of looking at the current state of the Republican primary race.

In one view, Mitt Romney has had it effectively wrapped up for weeks. Rick Santorum's freak victory in three contests last week was a meaningless blip -- a speed bump. Sure, Santorum now leads in some polls, but he's fundamentally a small-time candidate who's about to get crushed like a bug by Romney and his allies. What we're witnessing now isn't drama -- it's death throes.

The other view: Romney has never been weaker. The conservative brushfire that powered Santorum in Missouri, Minnesota and Colorado is now a raging inferno that threatens to engulf the fragile front-runner. Desperate and flailing, Romney is on the verge of total collapse. With a natural and specific appeal in many of the upcoming primary states, Santorum is poised to sweep into Super Tuesday and become unstoppable.

Which is it? Michigan will tell.

The state's Feb. 28 primary stands to settle the vexing question of whether Romney is the unassailable GOP nominee, despite some temporary turbulence, or a paper tiger whose inability to seal the deal will cost him the race for the second time.

And at the moment, there's no telling which way Michigan will go.

"Michigan has always been Romney's firewall," said Jordan Gehrke, a D.C.-based political consultant who hails from Michigan and has run campaigns there. "It would be a tremendous surprise if he lost the state. Even if Santorum gets within a few points...the whole premise of [Romney's] electability starts to crack."

With Super Tuesday just a week later -- 10 states vote on March 6 -- anything less than a show of strength for Romney in his native state could trigger a tsunami of fresh support for Santorum.

"If Santorum wins Michigan, oh my goodness, it's Katie bar the door," said Chuck Yob, a Grand Rapids-based longtime Republican operative who supports Santorum. "I think he's going to do well in Michigan, and it wouldn't surprise me if he won."

The three public polls conducted since Santorum's recent hat trick of upsets have all shown him leading in Michigan by between 3 and 15 percentage points. Santorum's supporters in the state -- where Republican politics are often blood sport -- insist that is not a mirage or a bubble.

"People are shocked that anybody but Mitt Romney is doing well here, but I'm not surprised at all," said Glenn Clark, a longtime social conservative activist based in Troy, north of Detroit.

The state's Republican primary voters are very conservative, he said, with a strong "values voter" streak and, in recent years, a major influx of Tea Party activism. And while Romney's economic message resonates, he said, Santorum offers "the whole package."

"I'm a social conservative; I'm also an economic freedom person. We can walk and chew gum at the same time," said Clark, who serves as president of the Michigan Faith and Freedom Coalition and is active in the Tea Party. At the same time, he said, cultural issues are suddenly top-of-mind thanks to the current controversy over mandating contraceptive coverage in the implementation of health-care reform.

"This power grab by Barack Obama to eradicate religious liberties has mobilized people of faith," he said. "It's on the table right now. People are talking about it."

Santorum's biggest successes thus far have come in Midwestern states -- Iowa, Missouri, Minnesota. In places like Grand Rapids and Holland, where there is a large Dutch Reform population, the Michigan GOP electorate resembles Northwest Iowa's, while the suburban counties around Detroit are similar to Santorum's home in the Pittsburgh area. This demographic affinity is most of the reason Santorum is focusing on Michigan rather than Arizona, which also holds a Feb. 28 primary.

Romney's stance on the Detroit bailout -- he penned an op-ed titled "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt" -- might not be a problem for the state's GOP voters on policy grounds; many see the auto industry bailout as a handout to unions. But that headline's potential to do general-election damage hurts Romney's argument that he's the strongest potential nominee. Meanwhile, a blue-collar appeal centered around an economic plan to revive manufacturing has always been central to Santorum's pitch, whereas Romney's economic plan is a more general blueprint to improve the overall economy.

But where Santorum's boosters see a man with a unique ability to pierce Romney's home-state armor, Romney backers see just the latest fly in the front-runner's ointment -- one that stands to be swiftly swatted away.

"The polls are making it [seem] a lot closer, but I think when you get right down to it, Romney takes Michigan, and I think he takes it rather strongly," said Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, the long-serving chief of the county where Romney grew up and one of the GOP establishment's biggest power brokers.

Gary Wolfram, a Hillsdale College professor active in Republican policy circles, said he was "90 percent positive" Romney would prevail in Michigan.

Santorum is enjoying a momentary boost mostly because voters simply don't know much about him, Romney's backers reason. Once they find out more -- through daily conference calls with the media and a barrage of nasty television ads -- they'll realize that Santorum, with his career in the dreaded Washington establishment and his history of support for earmarks and government spending, is far from a pure conservative.

"Right now, Rick Santorum is a blank slate out there," said state Rep. Aric Nesbitt, referring to areas like his district in southwestern Michigan near Kalamazoo. "People don't understand his abysmal record of high spending, voting against cutting taxes, passing earmarks.... As soon as this information gets out, things will absolutely change."

The Romney campaign is airing an ad emphasizing the candidate's ties to the state -- in it, he says, "Michigan's been my home, and this is personal," and reminisces about the glory days of the auto industry. Meanwhile, the super PAC backing Romney, Restore Our Future, is blanketing the airwaves with a spot that concludes, "Rick Santorum: big spender, Washington insider."

Santorum's response is an ad that depicts Romney as a crazed, gun-wielding negative campaigner -- "Rombo." It accuses Romney of trying to hide from his own liberal record and predicts that his negativity will turn off voters. But Romney and his allies don't think Santorum's victim act will get him anywhere.

As when Newt Gingrich came under fire in Iowa and Florida, and adopted an elaborately aggrieved posture, voters, they predict, will see a candidate who can't take the heat.

And while Romney's campaign has focused on attacking Santorum's fiscal record, they predict his far-right views on social issues will trip him up and take him off topic. In New Hampshire, Santorum killed his Iowa momentum by getting drawn into unproductive, angry debates about issues like gay marriage. These days, his opposition to birth control and his views on women's roles threaten take him off topic and make even social conservatives wonder about his electability.

And so, in a Republican primary that's refused to end quietly, a high-stakes moment once again looms. Despite the Romney camp's confidence, it seems clear that his candidacy could be riding on the outcome.

Yob, the Santorum backer, noted that Michigan's primary allots delegates proportionally, so a strong second place finisher will still earn delegates. Romney, with his reputation as a moderate, will have a hard time convincing voters Santorum is insufficiently conservative, he said.

"People are going to see through these attacks," he said. "Anybody who attacks Rick Santorum for not being a conservative has got a problem."

Image credit: Reuters/Joshua Lott

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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