GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Michigan native son Mitt Romney is mounting a giant effort here to win back some love in the state of his birth, amid fresh signs he will have trouble winning the Feb. 28 primary or a general election matchup for the state’s 16 electoral votes this fall against President Obama.
The Detroit-born Mr. Romney, facing a strong challenge from rival Rick Santorum in what some call a must-win state, is the son of a former governor and attended high school here, but soon left his blue-collar home turf for an elite career path and undeniable corporate success elsewhere.
Although his name recognition remains high among those who remember when his father, George Romney, was Michigan’s governor, few voters younger than 50 in a state that has suffered massive economic dislocation over the past decades now connect with the Harvard-educated son who made a fortune in corporate finance and served a term as governor of Massachusetts.
Losing his home state would only reinforce GOP doubts about his candidacy and haunt him through November, political observers warn.
“Obviously, it would be a huge symbolic loss if he can’t win his home state,” said University of Michigan political scientist Michael Heaney. “If Romney loses in Michigan, the media will say his campaign is down, he’s lost momentum and he’s washed up now.”
Four polls taken of likely Michigan voters in the past week — including two released Wednesday — show Mr. Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania who touts his appeal to blue-collar voters, leading Mr. Romney in Michigan by a margin ranging from 3 to 14 percentage points, erasing Mr. Romney’s lead.
A separate survey by Public Policy Polling offered more bad news for the former Massachusetts governor: President Obama would trounce Mr. Romney by a 54 percent to 38 percent margin in Michigan if the election were held today. The 16-point margin is more than double Mr. Obama’s lead in previous state polls.
“Michigan is looking more and more like it won’t be in the swing-state column this fall,” PPP Director Tom Jensen said.
Battle over bailouts
Sensing Mr. Romney’s weakness, Democrats, including several of Michigan’s top lawmakers, are circling like sharks to apply the kill. During a conference call with reporters Tuesday, they called out Mr. Romney over his continuing criticism of the taxpayer bailout of General Motors Co. and Chrysler LLC, begun by President George W. Bush and expanded under Mr. Obama.
Mr. Romney’s 2008 editorial, which called for a structured bankruptcy and pointedly admonished the federal government “let them fail,” has come back to haunt him, as GM and Chrysler have rebounded and are hiring again. The Romney campaign may face another uncomfortable moment Thursday when GM announces its 2011 earnings.
Even as Mr. Santorum has soared in local and national polls, Democrats here have kept their fire trained mostly on Mr. Romney, reflecting in part the calculation that he remains the biggest threat to Mr. Obama in November.
“Romney will say and stand for anything to get elected, but it’s funny he can’t even do that right,” former Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat, said on a Tuesday conference call to reporters. “He’s against everything that Michigan is for, and even his family name can’t cover that up.”
Mr. Romney campaigned in the conservative and friendlier turf of western Michigan on Wednesday, where the upscale and economically growing Grand Rapids area stands in marked contrast to the grittiness of Detroit.
But his bid to woo the GOP conservative base while reaching out to independent swing voters wasn’t playing well for some.