The Romney and Santorum campaigns began their battle in earnest on Tuesday, with both beginning new ad campaigns — Romney playing up his Michigan roots and Santorum arguing that he would be a more clear contrast to President Obama in November.
Santorum, who has moved into a virtual tie with Romney in polling nationwide, including in Michigan, plans to give a major economic address before the Detroit Economic Club on Thursday. Romney will deliver his own economic speech to the group next week.
Romney wrote an op-ed piece in the Detroit News on Tuesday to try to explain his opposition to the 2009 automobile industry bailout, which Democrats argue has been key to turning around General Motors and Chrysler. In the piece, Romney wrote that Obama mismanaged the bailout by giving unions too much power.
“It’s going to be a slugfest here. We didn’t think we’d matter, and now we’re at the eye of the storm,” said James Muffet, president of Citizens for Traditional Values, a Michigan-based group that has an e-mail list of 15,000 social conservatives and has not endorsed a candidate in the race.
There are potentially huge opportunities — and pitfalls — in Michigan for Romney and Santorum.
For Romney, the contest is a chance to show that he can connect with working-class voters, who have been lukewarm toward him. He has a built-in advantage in a state where he grew up and his father was a popular auto executive and governor. But for those same reasons, a defeat here could be devastating.
“If Romney loses Michigan, the perception is that it’s just a huge loss for him, one that could really cost him the nomination,” said Steve Mitchell, a Republican pollster based in East Lansing.
For Santorum, the Michigan contest is a chance to show that he can appeal to more than social conservatives and that he can mount the kind of broad-based campaign needed to win the nomination — and defeat Obama in the fall.
While less damaging than for Romney, a loss for Santorum could sap his momentum as the campaigns head into 10 contests on Super Tuesday just a week later. It also could raise questions about Santorum’s ability to defeat Romney in races where the front-runner exerts real effort.
Both camps have been working to play down expectations. In a Fox Business Network interview last week, Romney said he didn’t expect Michigan “to be a landslide.” And Santorum adviser Hogan Gidley said Tuesday that the campaign is “under no illusions” that a Michigan win is likely.