News Column

Romney's Native State Threatens To Upend Race

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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.

Romney advisers say they're confident he'll win the Wolverine State. "In the final analysis, I would bet he's going to carry Michigan," Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, a Romney backer and for four decades a major figure in the state's Republican politics, said in an interview.

Would he bet the farm?

The blunt-spoken Patterson paused. "I'd bet my wife's half of the farm," he said, laughing. Then he quickly repeated his prediction of victory.

Auto bailout in the Motor City

One awkward issue here for both contenders: the federal bailout of the auto industry.

Romney and Santorum opposed the rescue plan as a Big Government intrusion in the free market. In a 2008 op-ed article that The New York Times headlined "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt," Romney warned that with a bailout, "You can kiss the American automotive industry goodbye." Santorum says he would have voted against it as well.

On Thursday, just before Santorum arrived at the Cobo Center to address the Detroit Economic Club, General Motors (its world headquarters is down the street at the Renaissance Center) posted a record $7.6 billion profit for 2011. U.S. taxpayers continue to own 30% of the company, which has paid back $26 billion of the $49.5 billion bailout.

The steps the government took were "injurious to capitalism," Santorum told the luncheon crowd of business executives and others, which listened politely but didn't applaud. "If they had just stayed out of it completely and let the market work I think it would be alive and equally well, if not better."

Romney is scheduled to address the same group this Friday, drawing so many reservations that it has been moved to Ford Field, where the Detroit Lions play. He also has doubled down on his opposition to the bailout, arguing at a roundtable with small-business owners and others in Grand Rapids that the Obama administration eventually implemented the "managed bankruptcy" he had espoused.

Others dispute that. Officials in the George W. Bush administration, which began the bailout, and the Obama administration, which expanded it, say GM and Chrysler wouldn't have been able to get funding for a managed bankruptcy without the government loans. Even some Romney supporters think the action may have prevented the demise of an iconic American industry.

"I'm philosophically against the bailouts," says Bill McKee, 54, an attorney in Grand Rapids who is likely to vote for Romney in the primary, "but it seems to have allowed them enough breathing room to get out from under the legacy costs" -- that is, the costs of health care and pension agreements from past labor agreements.

Among autoworkers and union members more likely to be Democrats than Republicans, Romney's opposition to the bailout has inflamed opposition to him for a general election in this battleground state.

A group of retired blue-collar workers who gather for coffee each morning in Utica, 5 miles from the Sterling Heights plant where Chrysler makes convertibles and Dodge Avengers, blast Romney as a turncoat who betrayed the city where he was born. "How can you say he's a native son?" demands Terry Wolf, 49, who used to work for Chrysler. "He can stay out of Michigan."

"He's anti-labor, anti-worker," says Larry Maierle, 70, retired from the circulation department of The Detroit News.

"All the automakers -- he wanted them all to fail," scoffs Vasel Djelaj, 62, a GM retiree.

Joe Butkovich, 65, a carpenter who co-owns the coffee shop with his son, is a Republican who voted for McCain in the 2008 primary but hasn't decided whom to support this time. "I see Santorum gaining steam," he says, but adds, "Romney is pretty smart and knows what he's doing."

One thing he doesn't appreciate: the negative ads Romney and his allies are airing on TV and radio. "It doesn't take long, does it?" he asks, shaking his head.

The mudslinger vs. the big spender

A Santorum ad portrays a Romney look-alike as a hit man wielding an automatic weapon that spews mud, though it doesn't leave a mark on a cardboard cutout of Santorum and eventually splatters mud on himself. "Mitt Romney's negative attack machine is back, on full throttle," the narrator warns.

An ad aired by the pro-Romney super PAC labels Santorum a "big spender, Washington insider," raising doubts about how conservative Santorum really is. It notes he repeatedly voted to raise the debt limit, backed the notorious "Bridge to Nowhere" earmark and "joined Hillary Clinton" on behalf of a bill that would have allowed convicted felons to regain their right to vote.

Romney also is running a gauzy biographical spot that features clips from his family's home movies. "I've got Michigan in my DNA," he declares in a campaign flier festooned with photos of him with his father, who was president of American Motors before being elected governor.

At a speech Thursday in Farmington Hills, where Gov. Rick Snyder endorsed him, Romney waxed on about his native state. "The trees are the right height," he declared without further explanation. "I like seeing the lakes."

His personal connections boost him in Michigan but also raise the stakes for him here. Steve Mitchell, a Republican pollster based in Lansing, calls the primary a "pivotal watershed" for the Romney campaign. "If he wins, I think he will be perhaps unstoppable for the nomination," Mitchell says, and a loss would be equally decisive. "Romney has to win Michigan to keep going, even though he has all this money."

If Romney loses, "the grade gets considerably steeper," acknowledges Patterson, the Oakland County executive who backs him. To survive afterward, "he'd have to kick some serious butt on Super Tuesday."

Gingrich, appearing on Fox News Sunday, said a home-state loss by any contender would leave "a very, very badly weakened candidacy" -- one reason he's been campaigning in his home state of Georgia, a Super Tuesday primary.

Santorum has come on strong in Michigan by appealing to the most energized voters in the Republican coalition. On Feb. 7, a Mitchell/Rosetta Stone Poll of likely Republican primary voters in Michigan put Romney in the lead at 31%, Santorum third at 15%. One week later, the survey had Santorum at 34%, Romney at 25%.

In the poll, Santorum now significantly leads Romney among Tea Party supporters (41%-25%), very conservative voters (50%-19%) and evangelical Christians (37%-21%) -- all key groups.

Whatever happens in Michigan and in Arizona, which also votes Feb. 28, the battle for the Republican nomination is likely to be the most extended contest since 1976, in part because new GOP rules require states voting before April 1 to allocate delegates proportionately, not winner-take-all.

It could resemble the 1976 contest, when President Ford, the establishment candidate, was challenged by an insurgent Ronald Reagan. Not until the August convention in Kansas City did Ford finally clinch the nomination, only to lose to Democrat Jimmy Carter in November.

The Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum overlooks the Grand River here. At the Biggby Coffee Shop nearby, locals stream in to buy morning coffee and breakfast pastry.

"I lean toward Santorum right now," says Rob Jamula, 43, a banker. "I don't think Romney is a true Republican, and I think Santorum is." He has doubts about how conservative Romney really is and says his Mormon faith is a factor, too.

Kit Clark, 47, a computer systems administrator, doesn't know much about Santorum and says Gingrich strikes him as a "grumpy old man." He likes the fact that Romney's father was governor but worries about the struggle his campaign is having in Michigan. "If you don't pull your dad's home state," he muses, "it makes me think you must be in trouble."

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