Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum are virtually tied heading into the critical Republican presidential primary in Michigan on Tuesday, where the outcome could further boost Romney’s tenuous front-runner position or upend the race for the party’s nomination to challenge President Barack Obama in November.
The vote in Michigan will test former Pennsylvania senator Santorum’s far-right message on social issues and determine how badly Romney has damaged his chances in his native state by continuing to insist that Obama was wrong to bailout the U.S. auto industry, the heart of the state’s ailing industrial base.
The auto giants General Motors and Chrysler Corp. have come roaring back from near-collapse after a huge infusion of federal money, managed bankruptcy and wrenching reorganization. Romney’s opposition to that Obama program has hurt him in Michigan, where even the Republican governor and GM chief, also a Republican, flatly disagree with Romney. Polls show Obama with a double-digit lead over both Romney and Santorum in the Midwestern state.
Arizona also holds its primary on Tuesday and Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, is expected to post an easy victory in the state. He picked up the endorsement of the state’s deeply conservative Gov. Jan Brewer on Sunday. Romney’s tough stance on illegal immigration is closely aligned with Republican sentiment in the state that borders Mexico and has moved aggressively against immigrants who are in the country illegally. Portions of a new state law were challenged by the Obama Justice Department and will be decided this spring by the U.S. Supreme Court.
As the Republicans battle for the nomination, all of them, including former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and Texas Rep. Ron Paul, now trail Obama in national polls. The president has seen his approval ratings improve in tandem with signs that the struggling U.S. economy is finally on the way toward a robust, albeit still shaky, recovery from the Great Recession of 2007-2009.
Both Romney and Santorum were holding, nevertheless, to their positions before the Michigan vote. Each also made appearances before the Daytona 500 stock car race in Florida, an event popular with conservative voters. Santorum was even sponsoring a car in the race.
Earlier in the day, Romney continued railing against the auto bailout in an appearance on Fox News, accusing Obama of having opened the federal checkbook as a means of paying off the United Auto Workers (UAW) union for its support in his 2008 election victory.
Obama insists that the auto bailout saved at least a million U.S. jobs at a time when the economy was crashing and in danger of moving into a depression.
Romney, however, kept up his criticism, saying Obama “was paying off the people that supported him and that, by the way, are trying to get him re-elected.”
For his part, Santorum continued his play for the most conservative Republican voters, calling Obama a “snob” for his policy of trying to make college available to all young Americans who want to further their education.
“President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob,” Santorum said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” ‘‘There are good decent men and women who go out and work hard every day and put their skills to test that aren’t taught by some liberal college professor to try to indoctrinate them. Oh, I understand why he wants you to go to college he wants to remake you in his image.”
Santorum urged Michigan voters to turn the race “on its ear” by rejecting Romney in Tuesday’s primary in his native state, in which Romney is spending heavily to avoid an upset. Santorum said Romney’s record is virtually identical to Obama’s on some key issues, especially mandated health insurance coverage, making him a weak potential nominee.
“Why would we give away the most salient issue in this election?” an impassioned Santorum told more than 100 people in a remote, snow-covered region of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Santorum said he is the true conservative on fiscal and social issues.
Romney rejected the claims.
“The biggest misconception would be that I’m a guy that comes from Massachusetts and therefore I can’t be conservative,” Romney told “Fox News Sunday.” In his one term as Massachusetts governor, he said, he balanced budgets, reduced taxes, enforced immigration laws, “stood up for traditional marriage” and was “a pro-life governor.”
“I’m a solid conservative,” Romney said.
Since the Republican nominating campaign began in earnest late last summer, Santorum is the fifth candidate to seriously challenge Romney, who has failed to win the hearts of the most conservative Republican voters. They dominate the state-by-state primary and caucus contests and are suspicious of Romney’s once-moderate stands on issues like abortion and gay rights.
Gingrich is not competing in Michigan or Arizona. He attended church services Sunday in Georgia, where he launched his political career, and warned an audience that the “secular left” was trying to undermine principles established by the Founding Fathers. He said America had faced a “50-year assault” by those trying to alienate people of faith.
He was joining in on a message from Santorum who also said on Sunday that he opposed a strict separation of church and state as dictated in the U.S. Constitution.
That kind of message and Romney’s attempts gain favor with the Republican hard right has led to polls showing that Obama is recapturing the backing of independent voters - those that are not members of either party - who were key to his strong victory over Sen. John McCain in 2008.
Gingrich’s campaign has struggled since winning South Carolina’s primary on Jan. 21, watching as Santorum has emerged as Romney’s chief rival. Gingrich is trying to regain traction in Georgia, which he represented in Congress for 20 years, Tennessee and other states voting March 6, or Super Tuesday, when 10 states hold nominating contests.
In a new sign that the Republican campaign will be lengthy, Santorum is expected to get Secret Service protection Tuesday, according to an administration official with knowledge of the plan. Romney has received protection since Feb. 1.
Gingrich requested Secret Service protection last week and is awaiting word on whether he will receive the security, a person close to the campaign said Sunday. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive security matters.
Federal law allows candidates to seek protection if they meet a series of standards, including public prominence as measured by polls and fundraising.