By Rosalind S. Helderman/Washingtonpost
DETROIT — Once thought an easy win for former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, the Michigan Republican primary is shaping up to be one of the biggest tests yet for Romney’s presidential hopes — and an unexpected opportunity for the surging campaign of former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum.
As one of only a handful of states that will vote during a long lull between Romney’s triple loss to Santorum last week and Super Tuesday, the two weeks leading up to Michigan’s Feb. 28 contest are quickly becoming a critical time in the campaign.
A new poll from the American Research Group shows Romney trailing slightly in his home state, a development that is giving Santorum aides new hope of another surprising victory. His advisers believe that a strong showing is now possible in the the state where Romney was born and his father served as governor.
A Michigan upset could be a turning point in the Republican primary, finally setting up the former Pennsylvania senator as the alternative to Romney and turning the remaining contests into head-to-head battles between the two men.
Romney advisers also appear to see Michigan as increasingly key — and believe that a loss in a state he enters with every conceivable advantage would be widely perceived as devastating.
“This might be one of the most important races of the whole process,” said Steve Mitchell, a Republican pollster based in East Lansing. “If Romney loses Michigan, the perception is that it’s just a huge loss for him, one that could really cost him the nomination.”
Both camps have been working to play down expectations. In a Fox Business Network interview last week, Romney said he didn’t expect Michigan “to be a landslide.” And Santorum adviser Hogan Gidley said Tuesday that the campaign is “under no illusions” that a Michigan win is likely.
But with two full weeks left until the votes are cast, the two sides are ramping up their efforts.
Santorum began running television ads in Michigan on Tuesday, Gidley said. An independent group working on Romney’s behalf announced Monday that it had purchased $600,000 in ad time to blanket Michigan airwaves in the next week.
The Romney campaign also announced Tuesday that it will begin running a positive spot in Michigan, in which he talks about restoring the state’s once robust economy. “Michigan has been my home and this is personal,” Romney says in the ad.
Both men have scheduled competing economic addresses to be delivered to the Detroit Economic Club — Santorum on Thursday and Romney on Feb. 24.
And Romney on Tuesday penned an op-ed in the Detroit News to try to explain his opposition to the 2009 auto bailout that Democrats argue has been key to turning around GM and Chrysler. In the op-ed, Romney wrote that President Obama mismanaged the bailout by giving unions too much power.
He also lays an unabashed claim to his Michigan roots and argues having a “Detroiter in the White House” would be good for the car industry.
“It’s going to be a slugfest here. We didn’t think we’d matter, and now we’re at the eye of the storm,” said James Muffet, president of Citizens for Traditional Values, a Michigan-based group, with an e-mail list of 15,000 social conservatives, that has so far not endorsed in the race, in part because the group’s board of directors is split.