The usually inconsequential Michigan primary is a bellwether in this year's contest for the Republican presidential nomination. On Presidents Day, News Corp. boss Rupert Murdoch said of Rick Santorum's recent surge, "Win Michigan, game over." Turning the heat up on Mitt Romney, who had dropped to second place despite being a native son of the Great Lakes State, Newt Gingrich said, "I think it's extraordinarily important to carry your own state. If they lose his home state, I don't see what he says the next morning to his donors to stay in the race." The pressure is on Mitt to win Tuesday.
Fortunately for Mr. Romney, Mr. Santorum endured a bad week of harsh media criticism, and the former Massachusetts governor once again leads the former Pennsylvania senator in Michigan polls. According to Rasmussen Reports data released Friday, Mr. Romney is ahead with 40 percent of likely Republican voters, compared to 34 percent for Mr. Santorum. Only the previous week, Mr. Santorum was on top in Michigan in two different surveys. An American Research poll showed Mr. Santorum up 33 percent to 27 percent. A Public Policy Polling survey released Feb. 13 pegged Mr. Santorum's Michigan lead at a whopping 15 points, but he fell far fast after that.
Mr. Romney might dodge this bullet, but it came too close for comfort given how prominent his family name is in his home state. His father, George W. Romney, later a member of President Nixon's Cabinet, was a popular three-term governor. Before politics, the senior Romney was president of American Motors Corporation (former parent company of Jeep), the closest one gets to being royalty in the world's largest carmaking region. This local pedigree is a major reason why Mitt Romney beat Sen. John McCain by nine points in the Michigan primary four years ago. The political dynasty is so respected in the state that radio personality Ronna Romney, the ex-wife of one of Mitt's brothers, won the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate in 1996 in large part because of the name.
This unexpectedly tight race has the Republican establishment inside and outside the Great Lakes concentrating force to defend the one who is perceived to be the inevitable GOP nominee. Superstar businessman Donald Trump has done radio spots and robocalls promoting the importance of Mr. Romney's business acumen in an economy starving for jobs. Rock star Gene Simmons, whose band Kiss is revered locally for its hit "Detroit Rock City," gave his thumbs up to the Michigander. Perhaps the most important endorsement of all came from another businessman, current Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, who is transforming a state that had unemployment twice the national average by cleaning up the books and turning a half-billion-dollar state surplus this year.
A bruising primary race can hurt an eventual nominee by providing an opposition playbook to the other party and by leaving the standard-bearer too damaged to mount a strong general-election campaign. But there can be an upside. A tough fight can toughen up a politician. The Republican pick will have to use everything he's got to beat Barack Obama, who is a skilled and ruthless campaigner with a well-oiled political machine. Many supporters worry Mr. Romney leaves too much on the field. Having to claw for Michigan is useful practice by forcing Mr. Romney to man up more on the trail.
Brett M. Decker is editorial page editor of The Washington Times. He is coauthor of the book "Bowing to Beijing" (Regnery, 2011).
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