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“I wouldn’t vote for any of them. I don’t see any of them as being real, authentic viable candidates,” said Doug Finley, 42, a hairdresser from Lansing, Mich., who describes himself as a moderate Democrat but is open to crossing the political aisle.

He said he was not backing Mr. Obama enthusiastically, but the Republican inability to coalesce around a leader only fuels his dismay.

Santorum tends to be so far to the right that it makes him so hard to palate,” he said. “Mitt — I think he’s so disconnected from the American worker and the realities of our current economy, I don’t think he has a true sense of how things really are. With [former House Speaker Newt] Gingrich, I don’t see him as trustworthy,” Mr. Finley said.

“This election, I feel like is another one those where we are being given the option to vote for the best of the bad — and in this case, for me, it’s Obama.”

Michigan Republicans have displayed an anti-establishment streak in the past that Mr. Romney’s funding and organizational advantages may not be able to overcome.

The Rev. Pat Robertson won the GOP primary here in 1988. In 2000, Sen. John McCain of Arizona beat Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the eventual party nominee, after Gov. John Engler promised that Michigan would be Mr. Bush’s “firewall.”

Mr. Santorum has yet to face the concerted media blitz here that the Romney campaign has trained on other rivals who have challenged the former governor’s front-runner status.

Michigan voters are just starting to see the sort of TV ads that flooded Iowa, South Carolina and other early states. An anti-Santorum ad, which ran in earlier states, claims that Mr. Santorum voted five times in Congress to raise the federal debt ceiling, an issue the tea party has turned into a battle cry. The ad calls Mr. Santorum a “big spender” and “Washington insider.”

Mr. Santorum is pushing back with an ad in which a Romney look-alike fires mud from a gun but ends up splattering himself. “Mitt Romney’s ugly attacks are going to backfire,” the narrator says.

Michigan as microcosm

What is happening in Michigan now is what is happening nationwide, said the University of Michigan’s Mr. Heaney.

“We see a conservative, grass-roots Republican constituency that is cycling among candidates, and now that cycle is shifting to Rick Santorum,” he said. “Republican primary voters are looking for two things: a true conservative and someone who can beat President Obama. Romney has always done well on the can-he-beat-Obama side of things. He is not now doing so well on the conservative side. What’s happened with Santorum, he’s seen as the true conservative, but it’s not clear that he can beat Obama.”

Mr. Romney “remains the most likely nominee, and he’s in deep trouble,” added political scientist Larry Sabato, who directs the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

“A loss in Michigan would be a devastating blow,” Mr. Sabato said, noting that one of Mr. Romney’s main electability arguments was that he could challenge Mr. Obama in key states such as Michigan.

“If he loses Michigan, having won it four years ago when he couldn’t win the nomination, it will be seen as a bad sign,” he said.

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