Rick Santorum stops to sign a photograph for Anthony Katara, 24, after speaking… (Paul Sancya, AP )
Reporting from Detroit and Farmington Hills, Mich. — With a new poll showing a virtual dead heat in Michigan's presidential primary, the leading Republican candidates veered Thursday from defensiveness to discomfort.
Rick Santorum was forced to respond to attacks from Mitt Romney's campaign on his fiscal conservatism and past support for organized labor. He said he offered "a vision" and was not "someone who's just good at tearing other people down."
Romney, meantime, was in the uncomfortable position of defending his opposition to the federal bailout of GM on the same day the auto company reported record profits of $7.6 billion. Speaking to a few hundred people at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon in Farmington Hills, Romney said he was "delighted" that the industry was once again profitable.
The leading GOP contenders campaigned only a few miles apart in the Detroit metropolitan area, a central battleground in the high-stakes Feb. 28 primary in Romney's native state. A statewide poll published Thursday in the Detroit News showed Santorum holding a narrow lead, 34% to 30.4%, that was within the survey's margin of error.
The ad war between the two camps raged on. Romney's allies in a "super PAC" have blistered the airwaves with anti-Santorum ads in recent days, but a Santorum-sympathetic super PAC announced Thursday that it would spend $663,500 on ads in Michigan over the next six days, significantly narrowing the Romney camp's financial edge.
In a brief interview after addressing a Detroit Economic Club luncheon, Santorum said he wasn't concerned about Romney's financial advantage, which the former Massachusetts governor used in past contests to defeat his main rival at the time, Newt Gingrich.
"I think it sort of rings hollow for Romney to say I'm not a conservative. I think most people just sort of chuckle when they hear that. I mean, that just doesn't fit," Santorum said.
During Santorum's appearance, however, he was forced to rebut an attack ad by a pro-Romney super PAC that labels him a "big spender" for his votes in Congress.
Santorum responded that the conservative National Taxpayers Union had rated him the fifth-most-conservative senator out of 50 who served during his 12 years in that body. He said that record was particularly noteworthy since he was representing Pennsylvania, which was more Democratic than the nation as a whole in presidential elections during that period.
"I stood up in a tough state, and stood for limited government," Santorum said.
To an audience question about the federal bailout of the auto industry, Santorum criticized Romney for backing the Bush administration's TARP program, used to rescue Wall Street's financial sector. Both men opposed the auto bailout, making it a relatively minor issue in the GOP primary in a state where the auto industry is a major employer.
"Gov. Romney focuses on the Obama administration, and the reason he does is because he supported what the Bush administration did. Well, I didn't," the former senator said. "I actually blame President Bush more than President Obama," he added, for having set a precedent of greater government involvement in the private sector.
Even though the auto companies are doing well, "the precedent of the role of government in the economy is not a good one," Santorum said.
Yet even as he criticized the idea of Washington "picking winners and losers," Santorum promoted his own plan to boost the manufacturing sector, including cutting its corporate tax rate to zero and providing other financial incentives, which many conservative Republicans oppose as an unwise intrusion into the private economy.
Romney told the Detroit News' editorial board on Thursday that rather than the federal government lending GM and Chrysler $80 billion, GM and Chrysler should have entered bankruptcy six months earlier and the federal government should have offered loan guarantees. (Economists have pointed out that at the time loans were not being made, particularly to teetering businesses.)
"I would have never allowed the auto industry to disappear," Romney told the paper.
"I love American cars, and long may they rule the world, let me tell you," he later said to hundreds of GOP voters at the chamber luncheon. "I want them to do well."
The awkwardness of his position was on display at the event, where Romney was endorsed by Republican Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, who has said the bailout was necessary to save the industry.
The men made no mention of the issue, and Snyder said he was backing Romney because of his experiences in business and running a state. He added that Romney's roots — he grew up near Detroit, the son of the late Michigan Gov. George Romney — were the "icing on the cake."