- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 28, 2012

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — With voters heading to the polls for the state’s pivotal primary, Rick Santorum on Tuesday dismissed rival Mitt Romney’s claim that he’s resorted to “dirty tricks” by calling on Michigan Democrats to support his candidacy.

As he exited a local diner where he shook hands with patrons, Mr. Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, painted the former Massachusetts governor as a hypocrite, accusing Mr. Romney of relying on “cheap shots” and negative advertisements to get ahead in the race.

“So, when he goes out and recruits 53 percent of the voters in New Hampshire who are not Republicans, that is OK?” he told reporters, alluding to the Jan. 10 Granite State primary where Mr. Romney has a strong showing among Democratic and independent voters.

The point of the Santorum campaign’s automated “robocall,” he said, was to prove that “we can attract the voters we need to win states like Michigan.”

While New Hampshire allows independents to vote in the primary, Michigan is a bit more wide open in that it allows Democrats to cross over and cast votes in the Republican nomination race — a voting bloc that Mr. Santorum courted in the robocall.

Romney supported the bailouts for his Wall Street billionaire buddies, but opposed the auto bailouts. That was a slap in the face of every Michigan worker and we are not going to let Romney get away with it,” the robocall says, reminding voters of Mr. Romney’s positions on the controversial $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, and on the bailout of General Motors and Chrysler. “On Tuesday, join Democrats who are going to send a loud message to Massachusetts’ Mitt Romney by voting for Rick Santorum for president.”

The Romney camp has seized on the call as evidence that Mr. Santorum is not the first choice of Michigan Republicans.

“A look at the most recent polls demonstrates exactly why Sen. Santorum is resorting to Democrat crossovers to prop up his floundering campaign: He can’t win among conservative voters,” Andrea Saul, a Romney spokeswoman, said in an email to reporters. “The latest polls show Michigan Republicans are supporting Mitt Romney.”

Surrounded by Secret Service agents on Tuesday, Mr. Santorum countered that Mr. Romney has relied on a robocall of his own that features audio of Mr. Santorum endorsing his presidential bid in the 2008 presidential campaign.

“When I go out and have a message of growth and opportunity, instead of running negative ads or running robocalls with my voice from four years ago, that’s not a dirty trick? And I didn’t complain about it,” he said. “You know what? I’m a big guy. I can take it.”

Polls showed the Michigan race is basically a dead heat, prompting some to suggest that the last-minute attacks from the Romney camp are driven in part by worries that he might need an excuse to fall back on if he loses in the state where he was born and his father, George, served as governor in the 1960s.

Michael Heaney, University of Michigan political science professor, said in an interview that it is “unlikely” that the Santorum robocall will influence the behavior of voters, pointing to research shows that robocalls are “one of the least effective campaign tactics.”

“My expectation is that very few Democrats and independents will choose to vote in the Michigan primary,” Mr. Heaney said. “Democrats and independents do not identify with the Republican Party and are just not that interested in participating in this contest.”

The outcome here could mark a turning point in the GOP nomination race. A victory would allow Mr. Romney to paint himself as the comeback kid and put him a big step closer to sewing up the party’s nomination. A loss, though, would viewed as a serious blow to the former Massachusetts governor heading into March 6 Super Tuesday, which is seen as a more favorable territory for some of the other candidates and where more than 400 delegates will be up for grabs — nearly 40 percent of the 1,144 delegates needed to capture the party’s presidential nomination.

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