During a visit to Daytona International Speedway, Mitt Romney comes across… (Joe Burbank / Orlando Sentinel )
Reporting from Troy, Mich. — On the eve of the unlikeliest showdown of a dumbfounding campaign year, the bitter Republican primary battle in Michigan has turned into an all-out class war.
Rick Santorum, flaunting the fieriest populism in years by a GOP presidential contender, is waging a determined challenge against Mitt Romney, heir to a storied Michigan political dynasty. Romney had once been expected to cruise to victory in the state his father governed and that he won four years ago.
But Santorum was aiming for an upset that, as he says, would shock the Republican world. In the first industrial-state primary of 2012, he has cast himself as a fighter for working men and women against the "elites in society who think that they can manage your life better than you can."
The biggest threat facing the country, the former senator from Pennsylvania says, is a big government in Washington that is bent on expanding its reach ever more deeply into the lives of ordinary Americans. And he links Romney to those forces and to the plutocrats of Wall Street, while drawing implicit contrasts between himself and one of the richest men ever to seek the presidency.
Romney defended his wealth — and by implication the wealthy — during an appearance on "Fox News Sunday."
"If people think that there is something wrong with being successful in America, then they better vote for the other guy," he said. "Because I've been extraordinarily successful and I want to use that success and that know-how to help the American people."
The class competition played out visibly Sunday at Daytona International Speedway, which was to have opened NASCAR's season until rain forced a postponement.
Romney flew to Florida from Michigan and put on a public display of affinity, strolling the NASCAR pits in a bright red Daytona 500 jacket and blue jeans. At one point, he walked past a car emblazoned with Santorum's campaign logo. (Out of public view, Romney also had a private breakfast with the billionaire founders of the auto racing operation and was introduced at a meeting of racing teams, corporate sponsors and celebrities.)
For both men, biography — or a gauzy version of it — is driving their acrid dispute.
"I don't come from the elite. My grandfather was a coal miner. I grew up in public housing on a VA grounds. I worked my way to the success that I had, and I'm proud of it," Santorum said Saturday in Troy, before a working-class audience gathered in the county where Romney enjoyed a privileged upbringing. Santorum didn't elaborate, but his family wasn't poor; his father, a psychologist, and his mother, a nurse, worked for the Veterans Administration — now the Department of Veterans Affairs — which provided them with an apartment.
In Michigan, Santorum is trying to exploit Romney's opposition to the federal bailout of the auto industry, which may hurt Romney among working-class voters and Democratic crossovers into Tuesday's primary, according to campaign analysts in the state.
Increasingly, he is also portraying Romney as a tool of Washington insiders and special-interest lobbyists. He accuses Romney of siding with "his friends on Wall Street" by backing taxpayer relief for the financial sector in 2008, while using his own opposition to government bailouts to argue that he is the "strong, consistent conservative" in the race.
"What you see is what you get, as opposed to, well, what you see today may be something different from what you get tomorrow," Santorum told the Oakland County audience.
Santorum's latest campaign ad attacks Romney for "turning his back on Michigan workers" without mentioning that Santorum also opposed the auto industry bailout. It also promotes his stimulus program for U.S. manufacturers. He promises that his plan would create jobs that would help "folks who are at the bottom of the economic ladder, folks who are struggling" to "rise in America."
Recent polling in Michigan shows Romney and Santorum running dead even among voters with incomes of $75,000 or less; any advantage that Romney may enjoy comes from those earning above that level. In their ads, both men are appealing for blue-collar primary votes with similar visuals: laborers in hard hats and the candidate in a Carhartt-style work-wear coat.
Romney has struggled to connect with ordinary Americans, a difficulty perhaps aggravated by his tendency to make comments that draw unwanted attention to his personal wealth, estimated at $190 million to $250 million. Most recently, he told a business audience in Detroit that his wife, Ann, drives "a couple of Cadillacs," prompting fresh criticism that he is out of touch with the lives of most Americans.