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Romney and Santorum locked in dead heat in Michigan

February 27, 2012|By Paul West
(AP Photo/Eric Gay )

Reporting from Novi, Mich. —

A fierce Michigan primary battle with the potential to upend the Republican presidential contest is going down to the wire as a virtual dead heat, according to a new statewide poll out Monday morning.

The survey shows Rick Santorum with a statistically insignificant two-percentage-point lead over Mitt Romney heading into Tuesday’s primary.  What is significant, however, is that Romney does not appear to have pulled away from his main rival in a must-win state for him. 

Over the last week, Santorum had seemed to be slipping behind, particularly after a middling debate performance on Wednesday.  However, that event — which took place in Arizona, this week’s other primary state — did not appear to receive the same degree of attention from voters, and especially the local news media in Michigan, as earlier debates in other primary and caucus states.

Both men have been waging aggressive, in-person efforts in Michigan, capped by a full day of campaigning across the state on Monday.

The new opinion survey, by a Republican firm, Mitchell Research & Communications of East Lansing, Mich., showed Santorum with 37% to Romney’s 35%.  Far back were Newt Gingrich, who is not campaigning in Michigan, with 9%, and Ron Paul, who is making a late foray into the state, at 8%.  Eleven percent of likely primary voters said they were undecided.    

According to pollster Steve Mitchell, Santorum is now back ahead among supporters of the tea party movement and has also rebounded among evangelical Christians. 

“Santorum’s strong appeal to social conservatives has been very effective. This race is still very close, but momentum seems to have changed. Get-out-the-vote efforts will really count,” Mitchell said in a statement.

Four years ago, Romney defeated the eventual GOP nominee, John McCain, in Michigan by nine percentage points.  He has outspent Santorum this time, though his advantage in the intensive ad war is not as lopsided as it was in the Florida primary, where Romney defeated Gingrich last month.

Romney may still wind up as the victor in Michigan, thanks to absentee ballots, which favor him, according to previous polling.  Romney also has a superior operation in the state—almost by default; Santorum has little organization.

A wild card that could tip the state to Santorum: an effort by Democrats to embarrass Romney in his native state.  Any registered voter can participate in the Republican primary, and Democrats have been informed by their party’s state chairman that they are welcome to do so and still participate in Democratic caucuses later this year that will select delegates to the national convention.

A Democratic "super PAC" supporting President Obama has also been stoking anti-Romney sentiment with an attack ad that blisters the former Massachusetts governor for opposing the federal bailout of Detroit’s auto industry.

Michigan Democrats have a history of meddling in GOP primary contests.  In 2000, they helped another anti-establishment presidential contender — McCain — upset heavily favored George W. Bush, who had the backing of virtually every elected official in the state, just as Romney does this time.

The Mitchell poll, of 858 likely GOP primary voters, was conducted Sunday night and has a margin of sampling error of about 3%.  The survey was an automated poll, as opposed to one that uses live operators and is considered more reliable; however, automated polls can provide a valuable glimpse into trends in opinion.  The new poll also reflects the findings of other, private polling as well as the assessments of the race by advisers to the leading GOP contenders.

paul.west@latimes.com

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