Before there was rust, there was gleaming chrome. You can see it on display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn. Behold the voluptuous 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air convertible, bursting with movie-star glamour. Check out the 1959 Cadillac Eldorado, a rocket ship on wheels, fit for a titan of industry.

A small sign by the Caddie includes a quote:

“Cars 19 feet long, weighing two tons, are used to run a 118-pound housewife three blocks to the drugstore for a two-ounce package of bobby pins and lipstick.”

That’s George Romney, 1955. He was a car executive then, running American Motors Corp., which bucked the Detroit tradition and tried to sell small cars.

Now his son Mitt is stumping across the state, trying to sell himself as an authentic Michigander. (“I love cars ” is one of his messages, and more than once he has said he likes the state because “the trees are the right height.”)

He told an audience in Milford on Thursday night that he was born in Detroit. His family lived in a “lovely” house in a nice neighborhood in Palmer Park. After his family moved away, Romney said, the house became an eyesore — and it was demolished.

A connection to demolition, however distant, gives a candidate in Michigan a modicum of street cred. So many houses in Detroit have been bulldozed that urban agriculture is making a comeback, and “grown in Detroit” is a selling point at the city’s farmers market.

The candidates also need to make a connection with Michigan’s blue-collar workers. Rick Santorum, who comes from a less privileged background than Romney, took a shot at President Obama on Saturday for saying that every American deserves a college education. He suggested that Obama wanted to indoctrinate students in the liberal ideology taught in college. What many people need, he said, is training for a job.

A Santorum victory Tuesday would be a tremendous blow to Romney, who has spent years building his political machine here but saw his once-commanding lead in the polls disappear this month as Santorum surged to the top in all the surveys. Bill Ballenger, editor of the Inside Michigan Politics newsletter, said of Romney: “He must have been tearing his hair out. How could this happen? He found himself 15 points behind a guy who had no history in Michigan, who nobody knew.”

Santorum won supporters such as Kelly Gingras, 45, a heavy-equipment operator. “He has more of my values,” Gingras said one evening last week in an Ypsilanti tattoo parlor. “Just limit government.”

Romney has closed the gap in the most recent polls. But it’s easy to find undecided voters even after all these months of campaigning.

Timothy King, a retired autoworker from Ypsilanti, said his choice is “anybody but Obama.” He said: “Socialism didn’t work in Europe. It’s not going to work here.”

Frank Crouse, 72, of Hartland went to hear Romney as an undecided voter but came away a convert — because he liked the way Romney didn’t use a teleprompter.

“He won me over,” he said. “It seemed to come from the heart.”

Tarnished state still important prize

Michigan remains a critical state for anyone wanting to become president, but its importance is eroding. It had 18 electoral votes in 2000, and 17 electoral votes four years ago, but will have only 16 this time. The state’s population declined in the most recent census.

This would have been hard to imagine half a century ago.

This was the state that built dream machines, giving people an intoxicating combination of speed and mobility. Highways were new, gas was cheap. Somewhere along the line, the American auto industry fell victim to its own success. It became complacent. Innovation was feared rather than embraced.

“We sort of killed off our entrepreneurial spirit,” Gov. Rick Snyder said last week in his Lansing office in the George W. Romney Building, overlooking the state Capitol. “We rode this thing too long.”

Between an employment peak in the spring of 2000 and the bottom of the recession in 2009, Michigan lost 860,000 jobs, according to Michigan State University economics professor Charles Ballard.

“Which just takes your breath away,” Ballard said. “There’s no way to avoid the fact that the first decade of this century was pretty awful.”

There are positive trends amid the wreckage. The auto industry is on the rebound. General Motors, which along with Chrysler was bailed out by federal loans three years ago, turned a $7.6 billion profit last year, the biggest in the company’s history.

“Our best days are still ahead of us,” Snyder said.

His Michigan is not a tragic place, but one that is geographically blessed. The climate, he said, is tempered by the “Great Lakes effect.” The Ice Age glaciers left behind rich soil in the southern half of the state and countless small lakes.

Snyder does not talk of rust but rather of asparagus. Blueberries. Cherries. Those are the ABCs of Michigan’s diverse agriculture, he said — one of the state’s overlooked economic strengths.

Michigan is geographically peculiar. It’s a Midwestern state framed by water, with two distinct peninsulas that strain to touch each other at their tips. The state has been a crossroads since the days of the fur trappers.

The Upper Peninsula is very rural, very conservative — a place where people take their gun rights seriously and home-school their children. The western counties of the Lower Peninsula, along Lake Michigan, have many social conservatives, and Santorum has been campaigning there vigorously.

To the east are counties where Romney racked up votes in his primary win four years ago over John McCain. And in the southeast is Detroit, a Democratic stronghold with an African American majority. Just west of Detroit, in Dearborn, is a thriving Arab American community.

Michigan is quirky when it comes to presidential primaries. The state does not have party registration, and so anyone can vote in the primary, including self-identified Democrats. The state has a history of primaries in which the winner didn’t go on to get the nomination – such as George H.W. Bush in 1980, Jesse Jackson in 1988, McCain in 2000 and Romney in 2008.

The Democrats have won Michigan in the past five presidential contests. Obama trounced McCain here four years ago and is favored to win here in the fall. Michigan is essential to his electoral map.

But the outcome this fall is hardly automatic, even though the Republican candidates’ opposition to the auto bailout would seem to be a serious handicap for any potential nominee. This is, by some measures, a Republican state now. Snyder is a Republican, having won office during a GOP landslide in 2010, when the party gained control of the state legislature and won nine of the 15 U.S. House races.

The head of Romney’s Michigan operation, Bill Schuette, the state’s attorney general, said the Democrats have taken Michigan for granted for too long. He noted that Obama flew here for a speech in Ann Arbor right after his State of the Union address.

“They’re paying special attention to Michigan because they know that with Mitt Romney as the Republican candidate we can win this state for the first time since ’88,” Schuette said.

‘We need some help’

Michigan has an uneasy relationship with change. The state has a lot of people who were born here, have always lived here and will someday die here, said historian Bob Casey of the Henry Ford Museum.

“Michigan has become, to its detriment, an insular state,” Casey said.

Keith Davis, 42, is a chef at Janet’s Lunch, in Grosse Pointe, and the change he’s seen in his life has been brutal. The old-fashioned diner is just a few blocks from the Detroit city line, where the landscape instantly deteriorates into decay and ruin.

He grew up in that neighborhood and in 1997 told his parents they should sell their home and get out. He told them: “Look at these punks. They’re selling dope all night.” His parents sold out. Now he lives right at the city line. He said he’ll vote for Obama. “He’s going to need eight years to maybe get things even halfway decent,” he said.

After the Romney event in Milford, tea party supporter Gary Howe, 72, said he still hadn’t made up his mind about how he’ll vote Tuesday. Howe thinks the government is a complete mess. “We need some help,” he said.

He speaks as a man from Flint, a once-wealthy city that has become a prime example of what can happen when a manufacturing economy goes into decline. He still owns his parents’ house there, the home he was born into. The neighborhood, he said, “is not real bad yet.”

This past summer he put it on the market. He’s had two offers. The first was for $49,500. The second was for less than that.

He won’t sell for that kind of money. Somewhere out there, surely, is a better offer.