Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney campaigned across the state of Michigan last week as if the Republican presidential nomination of 2012 depended on it.
And in a sense, it did.
If Michigan native son Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, is not able to put Michigan in the win column Tuesday, his presidential ambitions for 2012 may be permanently hobbled.
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Conversely, victories in the Michigan and Arizona primaries Tuesday could be the tipping point that position Mr. Romney as the clear front-runner with the 10-state primary and caucus "Super Tuesday" just a week afterward.
"Michigan is a must-win for Romney," said David Cohen, political science professor and observer at the University of Akron. "If a supposed front-runner cannot win the state where he hails from, a state he won four years earlier, and a state where his father was a popular governor, then he is not a front-runner."
Mr. Cohen said a narrow victory won't change the trajectory of the election.
"He's expected to win. Now if he surprises everyone and blows away the competition, perhaps that changes the narrative," Mr. Cohen said. "The GOP race is totally up in the air regardless of what happens this Tuesday, and the race may not be settled by summer or even by the time we get to the convention."
Mr. Romney's and Mr. Santorum's intensive campaigning in the state suggests that they suspect Michigan is a make-or-break contest for both.
Mr. Santorum had at least 13 scheduled appearances, including three on Sunday and three on Monday. Mr. Romney had 10 scheduled appearances around the state, including one on Sunday and two on Monday.
The two are the poll leaders in the run-up to the Michigan GOP primary on Tuesday, from which the state will send 30 delegates to the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., in August.
That's when the party's nominee to take on President Obama will be formally selected.
Michigan is normally entitled to 59 delegates, but the state party is being penalized for scheduling its primary before Super Tuesday.
Still competing, but trailing in the polls, are former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas.
Mr. Gingrich has not campaigned in Michigan, but Mr. Paul scheduled three appearances in the state for the weekend.
Like Ohio, Michigan awards its delegates proportionally, rather than winner-take-all. Two delegates will be awarded to the winner in each of Michigan's 14 congressional districts and the remaining two delegates will go to the winner of the statewide vote, provided that a candidate reaches a 15 percent threshold.
Polling places are to be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Participation is open to registered voters who request a Republican ballot in writing, which means Democrats and independents who have not previously voted a Republican ballot may do so.
In speeches Saturday to the 1,000-strong Michigan Prosperity Forum in Troy, Mich., Mr. Santorum and Mr. Romney worked hard to connect with the issues of Tea Party and "patriot" voters.
Each also sought to paint himself as a better standard-bearer against Mr. Obama in the fall, with Mr. Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, taking more direct aim at Mr. Romney.
"You have to elect someone who can draw a clear contrast with President Obama, someone who can't give away the most important issue in this race," Mr. Santorum said, referring to health care.
Mr. Romney has vowed to eliminate the 2010 Affordable Care Act, Mr. Obama's signature legislative achievement, if he is elected but has had a hard time distinguishing the so-called Obamacare from his own initiative as governor of Massachusetts, a health insurance mandate program dubbed Romneycare by critics.
In his own turn two hours later, Mr. Romney tossed Mr. Santorum's own words back at him, quoting Mr. Santorum's endorsement of him on a radio show in 2008.
"He said, ‘Mitt Romney, this is a guy who is really conservative, who we can trust.' He said, ‘He is the clear conservative candidate and what we need is principled conservative leadership,'?" Mr. Romney said.
Late-week polls indicated that the Santorum campaign's momentum may have cooled. And Mr. Romney exuded a sense of confidence that was not as evident the week before. A key event last week, a nationally publicized debate in Mesa, Ariz., was widely seen as a victory for Mr. Romney.
Mr. Romney won Michigan's 2008 Republican presidential primary, beating eventual party nominee John McCain, and has a long list of official endorsements, including those of state Sen. Randy Richardville of Monroe and Gov. Rick Snyder.
Mr. Romney has reminded every audience that he was one of them. He was born in Detroit and grew up in Bloomfield Hills in Oakland County before leaving the state at age 19. Mr. Romney's father, George, headed the former American Motors Corp. — once the corporate owner of Toledo's Jeep assembly plant — and was a governor of Michigan.
Mr. Romney made a point of calling himself a "car guy" and to prove it to the Detroit Economic Club Thursday at Ford Field he counted off the Detroit-made vehicles he owns: a Ford Mustang and a Chevrolet pickup truck, and the cars his wife drives, "a couple of Cadillacs."
Whether extolling his love for cars will overcome the negative vibe created by his 2008 guest column in the New York Times titled "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt" may be decided by voters Tuesday.
Mr. Romney opposed federal auto-industry bailouts, which funneled about $85 billion into the automakers that then were General Motors Co. and Chrysler Group.
Today, Fiat SpA-managed Chrysler and a reconstituted GM, along with Ford Motor Co. — which supported, but did not take, the assistance — are achieving record profits.
It's a point that Mr. Santorum tried to turn to his advantage. He said he also opposed the automaker bailouts, but he was more principled because he opposed federal aid for Wall Street banks too.
"We give up the issue of the bailouts [in the general election contest against Mr. Obama] because he was for some [bailouts] and against others, the one here in Michigan," Mr. Santorum told the audience in Troy.
Mr. Santorum also has a Michigan connection: His immigrant grandfather worked two years in the Detroit auto industry during the mid-1920s before moving to Pennsylvania to become a coal miner.
Tim Keller, 45, a Port Huron social studies teacher, was among a Tea Party and evangelical crowd of 800 who turned out in Macomb County about 30 miles north of Detroit to hear Mr. Santorum speak.
"He seems more personable, he seems more down-to-earth. He's a regular guy," Mr. Keller said. He said he wants to see more limited government: "The takeovers of GM and Chrysler — unbelievable, it's socialism and I'm against that."
Catherine Cantalin, 56, a homemaker from Rochester Hills in Oakland County, said Mr. Romney has never defeated anyone significant in an election, and said his record of implementing "Romneycare" in Massachusetts will be a detriment running against President Obama.
"[Mr. Santorum] is the best contrast to Barack Obama. He has the best chance of winning. Every time he gets up and talks he educates," she said.
Mr. Romney's supporters saw it the other way.
"Santorum seems to be talking about values issues but most of the people are concerned about jobs and the economy," said Pat McElheron, a retired GM engineer from Rochester Hills.
Mr. McElheron's wife, Carol, said she was supporting Mr. Romney because "Santorum can't win. Jobs and the economy are No. 1. He doesn't have any private-sector experience. He's a Washington insider."
Bill Schuette, the Michigan attorney general and one of Mr. Romney's most visible supporters in the state, labeled Mr. Romney the "comeback kid."
"We have a tremendous candidate whose roots in Michigan are as deep as the Great Lakes themselves. I'm a Mitt Romney guy because he has the ability to win in the general election, and most importantly this is a jobs and paychecks election and Mitt Romney is the jobs and paychecks candidate," Mr. Schuette said.
Mr. Cohen, the political science professor, theorized that Mr. Romney is having a tougher time this year than in 2008 because conservatives are more dominant in the Republican Party now, and as a result, Mr. Romney's record is getting stricter scrutiny. He said an unspoken factor may be Mr. Romney's Mormon religion.
If the economy is recovering, then the value of economic issues — Mr. Romney's strong suit — is weakened, elevating the social issues that Mr. Santorum has emphasized.
"Rick Santorum is doling out the red meat in big heaping spoonfuls," Mr. Cohen said.
"The economy is improving, and now people are starting to look at some of those other issues for Republicans that are so very important and that Romney, when he tries to talk about those kind of issues, seems so inauthentic," Mr. Cohen said.
Contact Tom Troy at email@example.com or 419-724-6058.