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.
"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.
On Wednesday morning, Mr. Romney's campaign chairman, state Attorney General Bill Schuette, said the candidate is expected to have a "strong showing" in Michigan, but stopped short of calling for a full-on victory.
"We're going to do very well, and we're going to win this campaign," Mr. Schuette said.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.
© Copyright 2013 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.
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