Mitt Romney faced a day of reckoning on Tuesday in Michigan’s primary that could either re-establish him as clear front-runner in the Republican presidential nomination battle or hand him a humiliating defeat in his home state.
Romney was born and raised in Michigan and his father was a popular governor, but conservatives threatened to deliver the state to Rick Santorum, who was running neck-and-neck with Romney in the polls in the final hours before voting began.
Most Michigan polls close at 8 p.m. EST.
Arizona was also voting on Tuesday and Romney has a comfortable lead there, aided by the man who beat him in the 2008 Republican nominating race but then lost to Barack Obama in the general election, Arizona Senator John McCain, who has endorsed and campaigned for Romney.
All eyes are on Michigan. A victory for Santorum on what is essentially Romney’s home turf would scar the erstwhile frontrunner a week before a defining day of the 2012 primary campaign season, the March 6 “Super Tuesday” when voters in 10 states go to the polls.
Romney seemed to be hedging his bets, saying he planned to win, but not predicting victory in an interview on Fox News.
“I sure plan on it. It’s obviously an uphill battle. I was 15 points down just 10 days ago, but we’re making progress. The last debate really helped a lot. So I’m hoping to pick up a lot delegates today,” he said on the “Fox & Friends” program on Tuesday.
Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, has made himself competitive by painting Romney as a moderate and stressing his own conservative views on social issues, his blue-collar roots as the grandson of a coal miner and his vision for rebuilding manufacturing in the hard-hit Midwest.
“We’ve been traveling all over the state, and I’m really excited about the response. I think we’re going to surprise a few people tomorrow night,” Santorum said on Monday.
An ABC News/Washington Post poll on Tuesday showed Romney had fallen to a new low among the most conservative Americans. He is viewed favorably by just 38 percent among strong conservatives, down 14 points from a week earlier.
Sixty percent of that group view Santorum positively.
WORRYING THE ESTABLISHMENT
A Santorum win could upend the race and prompt Republican party leaders – concerned that Santorum’s unflinching religious conservatism could make him unelectable – to search for a new candidate to join the race.
One unpredictable factor was the ability of Michigan Democrats to vote in the Republican primary for Santorum, who many see as having little chance of defeating Democratic President Obama in the November 6 election should he become the Republican nominee.
“I think Santorum is completely radioactive and will bring an electoral disaster to the Republicans – he could deliver Obama a landslide,” said Michigan Democratic strategist Joe DiSano, who has launched one effort to help Santorum. “We need to focus on the one real challenger to Romney.”
The Santorum campaign tried to encourage the crossover vote with a robocall urging Democrats to send a message to Romney because of his opposition to 2009 auto bailouts that kept thousands of Michigan workers employed.
Romney, who has denounced labor unions repeatedly as he has campaigned, lashed out against the calls.
“It’s a dirty trick. It’s outrageous to see Rick Santorum team up with the Obama people and go out after union labor in Detroit and try and get them to vote against me. Look, we don’t want Democrats deciding who our nominee is going to be. We want Republicans deciding who our nominee is going to be,” Romney said on Fox.
Romney aides believe he has the organizational strength for a good turnout and that he could survive a defeat in Michigan.
Other Republican candidates – Newt Gingrich, a former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, and Ron Paul, a Texas congressman – are running far behind the two leaders and have not competed heavily in Michigan, making the state a Romney-or-Santorum contest.
Romney has stressed his view that his experience as a private equity executive and former Massachusetts governor makes him the best candidate to defeat Obama and lead the U.S. economy back to strong job growth.
“I’ve spent 25 years in business,” Romney said. “I understand why jobs go, why they come. I understand what happens to corporate profit, where it goes if the government takes it. This is what I’ve done for all my life. Senator Santorum is a nice guy, but he’s never had a job in the private sector.”
That message is resonating among many Michigan Republicans.
“He could be more charismatic, but a steady, good businessman is what we need,” said John Bas of Berkeley. “Is he a rock star? No. But rock stars probably don’t make good presidents.”
Romney may not be a rock star, but he had one campaign for him on Monday. Kid Rock and his band joined Romney at a theater in Royal Oak to play the signature anthem of Romney’s campaign events, “Born Free.”
Romney and his wife Ann watched the brief concert from the front row and clapped to the beat.