U.S. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney (L) shakes hands with musician Kid Rock after Rock performed at a campaign stop for Romney's supporters in Royal Oak, Michigan February 27, 2012.
Credits: REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
DETROIT -- Rick Santorum could deliver a devastating blow to the Mitt Romney juggernaut here Tuesday.
And he might have Democrat Michiganders to thank.
While no one expected a GOP battleground in Michigan -- the state of Romney's birth that he won four years ago -- it is now shaping up to be one of the most important states so far in the Republican nomination race.
Romney commanded a double-digit lead here just two weeks ago, but polls over the past 10 days have shown either Romney or Santorum with a small lead, but rarely outside the polls' margins of error.
A new Mitchell Research poll Monday gave Santorum a two-point edge over Romney with 37% to Romney's 35%. Both Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul received less than 10% each.
And since Michigan's is an open primary, meaning voters are not required to register with the Republican party to vote Tuesday, Democrats here are being encouraged by some labour activists to vote for Santorum, whom Democrats think will be easier for President Barack Obama to beat in November.
Also, the United Autoworkers Union staunchly opposes Romney for his opposition to the federal bailout of GM and Chrysler in 2009.
Romney, whose supporters have flooded this state with $2.5-million worth of television ads blasting Santorum, assailed his main rival Monday as a Washington insider.
"Senator Santorum's a nice guy, but he's never had a job in the private sector," Romney said in Rockford, Mich., at his first of three events Monday. "He's worked as a lobbyist, he's worked as an elected official and that's fine. But if the issue of the day is the economy, I think to create jobs it helps to have a guy as president who's had a job, and I have.
"We need dramatic change, fundamental change in Washington," Romney added. "That's not gonna happen by someone who is a creature of Washington, someone who's spent their life in Washington."
In Arizona, which also holds its GOP primary vote on Tuesday, Romney is polling 17 points ahead of Santorum and picked up the endorsement of that state's governor, Jan Brewer, on the weekend.
And while Romney is trying to appeal to Tea Party supporters and deficit hawks here, Santorum is playing up his blue-collar roots and highlighting Romney's opposition to the auto industry bailout four years ago.
In a new television ad, Santorum attacks Romney for "turning his back on Michigan workers."
He also said Romney was "uniquely unqualified" to take on Obama in November because he said Romney's health-care reform in Massachusetts led to the president's federal health-care reform, which Republicans abhor.
"It's the biggest issue in this race," Santorum said at his first of three events across the state Monday. "It's about government control of your life, forcing you to buy things then forcing their values on you and your religion, which, by the way, Governor Romney did in Catholic hospitals in Massachusetts by forcing them to distribute the morning-after pill.
"Why would we give those issues away in this general election?"
Santorum and the independent super-PAC supporting him have reportedly been outspent two-to-one by Romney and his supporters here.
If Romney can win both Michigan and Arizona, he would once again be considered the presumptive nominee and could go a long way towards wrapping up the race with a series of wins on Super Tuesday next week, when 10 states hold contests in the Republican nomination race.
But if Santorum can pull off an upset in Michigan, his surge of momentum would skyrocket ahead of the big day.
A win for Santorum would show his largely moral victories in the Midwest -- Iowa, Missouri, Minnesota and Colorado -- were not a fluke, and could also bolster his chances to win in Ohio, another large rust belt state, that votes on Super Tuesday.