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Santorum aims to put Michigan out of Romney's reach

February 20, 2012|By Paul West
  • Rick Santorum attends the Michigan Faith & Freedom Coalition rally in Shelby Township on Feb. 17.
Rick Santorum attends the Michigan Faith & Freedom Coalition rally… (Paul Sancya / Associated…)

Reporting from Muskegon, Mich. — With a new poll hinting at a tightening race in the pivotal Michigan primary, Republican presidential contender Rick Santorum tried to stoke blue-collar resentments Monday in the conservative western part of the state.

The former Pennsylvania senator is aiming for a knockout blow of Mitt Romney in one of his rival's traditional strongholds. 

Santorum told supporters in the gritty Great Lakes harbor town of Muskegon that he is anticipating "what could be a sound heard 'round the world here in Michigan" next week.

Doubling down on his attacks on "the elite in society" and what he called President Obama's "radical environmental ideology," Santorum accused the administration of posing "a false choice" between protecting natural resources and stimulating U.S. economic growth.

The Obama administration "wants to limit your productivity" and "your ability to rise in society," so that "they can limit the resources that you get. That's what cap-and-trade was all about," he said to an enthusiastic crowd of several hundred that loudly cheered his references to the tea party movement.

Romney, in a reflection of the escalating stakes in Michigan, scheduled a town hall meeting Tuesday morning in the suburbs north of Detroit, one day ahead of the final nationally televised debate before 14 states choose Republican presidential convention delegates over the next two weeks.

The stepped-up campaign activity underscored the importance of the Feb. 28 primary: Romney was born in this state, grew up in the Detroit area, and his family name is a familiar one, particularly among voters 60 and over.
 
Romney won Michigan by 9 percentage points in 2008 over John McCain, the eventual nominee. A defeat -- or even a narrow victory -- in Michigan would be damaging to his candidacy heading into the big round of Super Tuesday primaries the following week.

Santorum, for his part, is attempting to build on his victories earlier this month, which propelled him Monday to his largest lead yet over Romney -- 10 points -- in the latest national Gallup tracking poll of Republican voters. A setback in Michigan, and in the Arizona primary the same day, could cost Santorum badly needed impetus going into the contests on March 6 in Georgia, Ohio, Tennessee, Oklahoma and other states (including Virginia, where he is not on the ballot, and Massachusetts, where Romney served a term as governor).

Unlike the national polls, the race may be tightening in Michigan, where Romney, Santorum and their supporters are dumping millions of dollars into campaign advertising on radio and TV, much of it negative.

A new survey by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm, showed Santorum with a 4 percentage-point lead, down from a wider advantage in several other statewide polls over the last 10 days.

The PPP poll, completed Sunday, mainly reflected an improvement in Romney's standing with Michigan voters, rather than slippage in Santorum's popularity. Romney has been reminding voters of his Michigan roots in recent campaign ads. His wife Ann, who also grew up in the Detroit suburbs, has been a visible presence around the state over the last week.

Santorum, accompanied by his wife Karen and three of their seven children, made his first stop Monday afternoon at a hastily arranged campaign rally in Muskegon, on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. A prominent Romney supporter who was on hand -- former Michigan Republican Party chairman Saul Anuzis -- acknowledged that the turnout was impressive for this area.

Santorum directed most of his attacks at Obama, but he criticized Romney for supporting the bailout of Wall Street. Santorum, who opposed it, said he would be the Republican nominee who would offer the best contrast in the fall against Obama.

In something of a departure, Santorum also took a whack at Newt Gingrich for sitting on a couch with Nancy Pelosi in a 2008 TV ad promoting climate-change legislation. The former House speaker hasn't been campaigning in Michigan, but he is on the ballot and drawing 10% in the latest poll, votes that Santorum would like to have as the race grows closer.

paul.west@latimes.com

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