Bloomberg News

Michigan’s Primary Today Will Test Santorum as Romney Challenger

February 28, 2012

(For more on the 2012 campaign, see ELECT.)

Feb. 28 (Bloomberg) -- Rick Santorum’s emergence as the main challenger to Mitt Romney will be tested in a Michigan primary that will determine who has the momentum in the Republican presidential nomination race before Super Tuesday.

Romney is trying to avoid the embarrassment of losing today in the state where he was born and his father was a popular three-term governor. Santorum is trying to prove he is a legitimate front-runner who can win in bigger states and not just generate a short-lived surge in an unsettled campaign.

Wins in Michigan and Arizona would propel Romney as the race moves into so-called Super Tuesday on March 6, when 11 states will hold contests with more than 400 of the 1,144 delegates needed to win the nomination at stake. In the closing hours in Michigan, the two men sparred over their conservative credentials and economic expertise.

“The reason that I’m going to beat Barack Obama in Michigan in the fall is because this is going to be a contest about who can strengthen the economy,” Romney told a rally in Royal Oak last night. To accomplish that, he said, “I need you guys to get out the vote tomorrow.”

Santorum told 350 supporters at Heritage Christian Academy in Kalamazoo that Romney “uniquely disqualifies himself on the biggest issue in the general election, the ability to go after Barack Obama on the government takeover of health care.”

Sniping Candidates

As the candidates sniped, party leaders fretted that the negativity is distracting Republicans from their main target: President Barack Obama.

“I worry a little bit, too, about our candidates having a negative campaign toward each other,” Mississippi’s Republican Governor Phil Bryant said yesterday after leaving a White House meeting. “But when we come through this vetting process, whoever comes out of that is going to be a man of iron.”

Robert Gibbs, a senior adviser to Obama’s re-election campaign, disagreed. Romney has been “greatly weakened” in Michigan, he said in an interview.

“Independent voters in Michigan and throughout the upper Midwest have gotten an up-close look at Mitt Romney the past many weeks and his actions in support of letting Detroit go bankrupt, and they have come to a conclusion that they don’t like what they see,” Gibbs said.

Polls in Michigan suggest a close race, while Romney enjoys a lead in Arizona, the other state that will host a primary today. Voting in both states ends at 9 p.m. Eastern Time.

A Tougher Competitor

“We’ll work through all this,” said Michigan Attorney general Bill Schuette, Romney’s Michigan campaign chairman.

The race in Michigan, he said, has made Romney a tougher, stronger competitor by forcing him to go on the attack against Santorum. “This has frankly sharpened Mitt Romney,” he said.

“It’s hard to view any of these contests in a vacuum,” Romney campaign adviser Tom Rath said. Wins today would “have significant ripple effects in all the states that are out there.”

Michigan will award 30 delegates based on how the candidates do in each of the state’s congressional districts, while the winner in Arizona will get all 29 delegates. That’s one reason Santorum has concentrated on Michigan, and it might mean that the overall vote-total winner in the state won’t necessarily collect the most convention delegates.

One unknown in Michigan is how many Democrats and independents will cast ballots in the open primary. Some members of the United Auto Workers have said they plan to vote for Santorum or Representative Ron Paul of Texas in a bid to extend the primary fight and prevent Romney from winning the state.

Inviting Democrats

Santorum’s campaign is making automated phone calls to Democrats in the state to urge them to vote for their candidate, citing Romney’s opposition to the $82 billion federal automotive bailout, which Santorum also opposed.

In a Fox News interview, Romney said the calls are “deceptive and a dirty trick” and a “new low in this campaign.”

In Kalamazoo, Santorum told reporters that he has long said that he has a message that can appeal to Democrats. “They’re allowed to vote,” he said. “Everybody that wants to vote for us, I encourage to vote. Why wouldn’t we encourage people to vote for us?”

In Ohio, one of the March 6 states, Santorum leads Romney among likely Republican voters 36 percent to 29 percent, according to a poll by Hamden, Connecticut-based Quinnipiac University. The survey was taken Feb. 23-26 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points.

Gingrich and Paul

Neither of the two other Republican presidential contenders -- former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Paul -- has competed aggressively in Michigan, concentrating instead on states voting next month.

Gingrich’s efforts may get a boost with Sheldon Adelson, chairman of the Las Vegas Sands Corp., planning to give a fresh infusion of cash to a political action committee backing Gingrich, according to a person close to the organization who wasn’t authorized to publicly discuss its finances.

The undisclosed amount will fund pro-Gingrich television ads to run in seven states that hold contests in early March, the person said.

The group, Winning Our Future, had $2.4 million as February started, according to Federal Election Commission reports. Almost all of its $11 million in donations in January came from Adelson and his wife. Data compiled by Bloomberg show he is among the top 20 wealthiest people in the world.

College Access

Santorum, who labeled Obama “a snob” this weekend for calling for college to be more accessible to all Americans, made a similar promise during his 2006 Senate run in Pennsylvania.

“Rick Santorum has supported legislative solutions that provide loans, grants and tax incentives to make higher education more accessible and affordable,” he said then in a statement on his campaign website. While Santorum’s recent comments appear aimed at energizing working-class voters in Michigan and Ohio, the discrepancy could undermine his argument that he is the most principled candidate in the race.

At a stop in Lansing, Santorum said it is a “joke” for Romney to question his conservative credentials.

“Michigan, you have the opportunity to stop the joke, to tell the truth about who the true conservative is and to have the best candidate to take Barack Obama on,” he said.

Earlier, Santorum charged that the Republican Party would hurt its chances in November’s election if it nominates Romney because he has taken too many positions similar to those of the Democratic president.

Targeting Obama

“We have an opportunity in this race to make this about Barack Obama and his failed policies,” Santorum, 53, told a business group in Livonia. “We need a candidate who can make that point, who can make it on the big issues of the day -- energy, jobs and manufacturing, limited government -- important issues like health care and its effect on the economy.”

Romney’s support of health-care legislation as governor of Massachusetts would damage the party’s standing because it is similar to the federal law Obama pushed through Congress, he said.

“Why would we give this issue away?” Santorum asked. “It is the biggest issue in this race. It’s about taking control of your economic lives.”

Calling Romney “uniquely unqualified” to make the case against Obama, he said the party would be foolish to pick someone who “did Obamacare-light.”

As the campaign in Michigan evolved over the last two weeks, Romney’s camp spotlighted Santorum’s career in Congress after polls showed the former Pennsylvania senator ahead.

Government Work

At an earlier stop yesterday in Albion, Romney, 64, pointed to the government-related work Santorum and Gingrich did after leaving Congress.

“They worked for companies, for lobbying firms in Washington,” Romney said. “They worked as elected officials in Washington. That’s what they know. I spent 25 years working business. That’s what I know.”

Spending in Michigan on television commercials by Romney’s campaign and a political action committee backing him has outpaced expenditures on behalf of Santorum by about 3-2, according to data from New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG, a company that tracks advertising.

The Romney campaign and Restore Our Future spent $2.85 million to air ads 5,544 times on Michigan broadcast television stations through Feb. 26, CMAG reported. Santorum and the Red White and Blue Fund, a PAC supporting him, spent $1.94 million to air ads 4,749 times.

--With assistance from Tim Higgins in Kalamazoo, Michigan, Chris Christoff in Lansing, Michigan, and William Selway and Greg Giroux and Hans Nichols in Washington. Editors: Jim Rubin, Michael Shepard

-0- Feb/28/2012 15:21 GMT

To contact the reporters on this story: John McCormick in Livonia, Michigan at jmccormick16@bloomberg.net; Lisa Lerer in Royal Oak, Michigan at llerer@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeanne Cummings at jcummings21@bloomberg.net


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