Welcome home, Mitt Romney. Not everyone is glad to see you.
The state where Romney has his deepest roots -- where he was born at Harper Hospital in Detroit, met his future wife while attending high school in suburban Bloomfield Hills, saw his dad elected and re-elected governor -- now looms as the unlikely challenge that threatens to upend his path to the Republican presidential nomination.
Romney trails Rick Santorum in the latest public polls in Michigan. A defeat in next week's primary would raise serious questions about Romney's electability and could set off a scramble for some late-starting alternative.
Before a Romney rally in a furniture-manufacturing warehouse here, Jim Buter, 61, pulls a small, blue "Romney" button from his pocket -- not from this campaign but from George Romney's 1966 re-election bid. Buter has saved it since he was 15 and his father took him to a fundraiser in their hometown of Holland. "Best governor we ever had," he says of the elder Romney, and a major reason he's supporting the younger Romney now.
His friend, Steve Tuzzolino, isn't so sure. "Lately, Santorum has gotten my attention," the 66-year-old "independent conservative" says. "I'm kind of intrigued with his message."
Out-spent and out-organized, Santorum has surged in Michigan and neighboring Ohio, one of the March 6 Super Tuesday contests. The former Pennsylvania senator has drawn support not only from evangelical Christians attracted by his credentials as a social conservative but also from blue-collar workers who are an important part of the Republican base -- and whom Romney has struggled to draw.
Even short of a victory, a strong showing by Santorum in Michigan would push Newt Gingrich to the sidelines and define the Republican contest as a two-man race, his campaign calculates. "Michigan is not a state you have to win," Santorum strategist John Brabender said in an interview. "It's a state you have to show you're in the game."
For Romney, however, a clear win is crucial to nervousness about his ability to consolidate Republican support now, and then pivot to challenge President Obama in November.
Four years ago, the former Massachusetts governor crushed John McCain in the Michigan primary, although McCain went on to win the nomination. Romney had held a lead in the state since last year until Santorum swept the three Feb. 7 contests -- in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri -- gaining a burst of credibility and contributions.
"We always expected it would be a competitive race," says Katie Packer Gage, Romney's deputy campaign manager and a Michigan native herself, although the campaign wasn't sure until two weeks ago who the main competitor would be in this primary. Still, she said in an interview, she was "a little stunned" by the "hype" that amplified the impact of the Feb. 7 contests -- which, as she noted, didn't affect the delegate count.
Now Santorum leads Romney 37%-30%, according to a RealClearPolitics.com average of four statewide polls taken over the past nine days. Texas Rep. Ron Paul and Gingrich have 10% each.
Santorum's sudden strength has prompted the Romney campaign and a pro-Romney super PAC, Restore Our Future, to spend more than $3 million on TV ads in Michigan, including money they would have preferred to reserve for the 10 contests the next week. It has pushed Romney to attack Santorum by name from the stump, something he has been loath to do against his competitors, and to harden his message in ways that could be problematic in a general election.
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