KALAMAZOO, Mich. — Sen. John McCain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney face off tomorrow in this state's primary, where a loss by the ex-governor could seriously damage his presidential ambitions and propel the Arizona senator into front-runner status.
Mr. Romney, who had counted on early wins in Iowa and New Hampshire but finished second in each state, is in a precarious position: He was born in Michigan and his father was once governor here, so he is expected to win. A loss, however, would give Mr. McCain, who won last week's primary in New Hampshire, a boost of momentum heading into South Carolina's contest on Saturday.
"My mom and dad are buried here," Mr. Romney told a group of supporters last week, recalling his father, the late Michigan Gov. George Romney, who also ran for president, and his mother, Lenore, a 1970 U.S. Senate candidate in the state.
"Michigan is personal to me," he says in an ad playing widely here. "It's personal because I love this state. It's personal because I recognize that as Michigan goes, so goes the nation."
The polls here have been up and down all year: First, Mr. McCain led, then Mr. Romney, then former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, then former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who won the Iowa caucuses. Of late, the polls show a virtual tie between Mr. McCain and Mr. Romney, with the senator up 3.4 percent, according to an average of the last five statewide polls compiled by realclearpolitics.com.
Mr. Huckabee has moved up, but still trails by nearly 10 points. Still, he changed his schedule in order to blitz across Michigan today and tomorrow, looking for a strong finish to push him to the top in South Carolina.
Some state pollsters dismiss the notion that Mr. Romney stands to gain little from victory in a state he is expected to win.
"A win for Romney in Michigan would be pretty huge because he hasn't won a major state yet," said Vincent Hutchings, a political science professor at the University of Michigan. "While his detractors might try to write it off, I think it would mean quite a bit if he could pull it off."
But Charlie Black, a Republican strategist working with Mr. McCain, said a Romney loss could be a serious setback. "If Romney loses Michigan, he might continue in the race, but he's not really a first-tier candidate anymore."
Mr. Romney's campaign staff said the governor plans to "campaign all the way through the early contests, February 5th and on to the nomination."
"We plan on winning Michigan and growing our support among grass-roots Republicans," spokesman Kevin Madden said.
Still, Mr. McCain has performed well in Michigan before: He won the state in 2000, but his campaign already had derailed in South Carolina, which held its primary first that year, with voters there giving the nod to a surging Texas Gov. George W. Bush, whom Mr. McCain crushed in New Hampshire by 19 points.
McCain will still depend on independents and moderate Democrats to push him over the top, just as he did in New Hampshire.
Mr. Huckabee is making a small bid to gain in the state, campaigning there today and taking direct aim at Mr. Romney, who also includes the Iowa winner in his aggressive ad campaign.
But the battle is shaping up as a two-man race between Mr. McCain and Mr. Romney. The governor, who has targeted Mr. McCain as a Washington insider, has traversed the state, pledging to restore the auto industry if elected president.
"It is simply wrong for Washington to be aware of what's going on in Michigan without doing something about it," Mr. Romney said in snow-covered Traverse City.
Mr. McCain, meanwhile, has toured the state on his Straight Talk Express bus — and has delivered some of his patented straight talk.
"Jobs are leaving the state of Michigan. They have left and will not come back, but we're going to create jobs. We're going to create a new economy," he said in Ypsilanti.
Mr. Giuliani and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson long ago abandoned the state and stand in single digits in statewide polls.