‘Real Jump Ball’ In Romney’s Native State Of Michigan

Michigan is Mitt Romney’s home state, but Republicans there are certainly not treating him to a hero’s welcome.

The latest polls leading into Tuesday’s primary either show Romney leading by the slimmest of margins, or barely losing to former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.

“It’s a real jump ball,” said Bill Ballenger, editor of the newsletter, Inside Michigan Politics.

Most precincts in Michigan will close by 8 p.m. ET, but some will remain open until 9 p.m.

Polls close at 9 p.m. ET in Arizona — the only other state holding its Republican primary Tuesday — but no results will be released until 10 p.m. Romney is expected to prevail there.

But the former Massachusetts governor faces a nail-biter in Michigan, where his father George was governor during the 1960s.

“Romney had completely obliterated that big polling gap from 10 days to two weeks ago [after Santorum's three-state sweep on Feb. 7] and it looked like he had momentum,” Ballenger said. “Now, it appears that that’s stopped.”

A Santorum win or even a narrow victory for Romney in Michigan will mean Romney’s life will continue to be complicated. The campaign will shift to a large set of states over the coming week — 10 states hold primaries or caucuses on “Super Tuesday,” March 6 — and many of of those states will be challenging for the putative front-runner.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Rep. Ron Paul, the two other remaining major GOP candidates, largely bypassed Michigan in order to concentrate on contests next month.

“If Romney were to lose Michigan, that will be played by the national media as a big blow,” said Scott Hagerstrom, Michigan state director for Americans for Prosperity, a group affiliated with the Tea Party. “Even if he barely ekes out a win, that will be seen as a big blow by the national media.”

Romney’s ‘Unforced Errors’

Romney appeared to have regained his footing at a nationally televised debate last week in Arizona, when he managed to put Santorum on the defensive about his record in the Senate.

Romney and the superPAC supporting his bid have portrayed Santorum as a political insider who spent taxpayer dollars heavily through earmarks and supported controversial legislation as part of the compromised and compromising culture of Washington.

Those attacks helped Romney erase a polling lead in Michigan that Santorum had built up based on momentum from his victories in Minnesota, Colorado and Missouri on “trifecta Tuesday,” Feb. 7.

But Romney was unable to put Michigan out of reach, despite his head start over Santorum, who mustered little organizational support and had barely campaigned there until the last two weeks.

“What we found is that Romney had had at least a good week, or couple of weeks, and folks in Michigan were warming up to him, but he just squandered that good will with voters,” said Tom Jensen, director of Public Policy Polling, which released a poll Monday showing Santorum with a 38 percent to 37 percent lead over Romney.

The poll found Romney’s unfavorable ratings had climbed markedly just ahead of Tuesday’s voting. Jensen said Romney’s problems were rooted in recent comments about his friends owning NASCAR teams and his wife driving a “couple of Cadillacs,” which reinforced the notion that Romney may be out of touch with Americans who struggle economically.

“He pretty well sent a final message that he’s pretty different from Republicans in Michigan,” Jensen said. “It was unforced errors, really.”

Santorum Still Clicks

In contrast to earlier states, Romney wasn’t able to swamp his main opponent by massively outspending him. The Romney campaign and its attendant superPAC may have outspent Gingrich by a 10-to-1 margin ahead of the Florida primary in January, but in Michigan his advantage was more in the neighborhood of 2-to-1 or 3-to-1 compared to his closest rival, Ballenger said.

“Romney has had to work like hell and spend money like hell just to have parity with [Santorum] and he can’t get above him,” he said.

Santorum may have been little known in the state a month ago, but he’s proven a good fit with social conservatives in more rural, western counties.

Controversial comments Santorum has made in recent days — such as suggesting that President Obama is a “snob” for favoring higher education for all and that the concept of absolute separation of church and state makes him want to “throw up” — haven’t hurt him with GOP primary voters, suggested Michael Heaney, a political scientist at the University of Michigan.

“With Santorum, you’ve got a candidate who really resonates with the Republican grassroots,” Heaney said. “The people who are most motivated to get rid of Barack Obama are quite happy with Rick Santorum.”

Democrats For Santorum?

For Santorum to carry Michigan, Jensen suggested, he’ll have to count on the support not only of stalwart conservatives but an unexpected voting bloc — Democrats.

Democrats and independents can vote in the GOP primary and they have been encouraged to do so by liberal blogs such as Daily Kos — and by Santorum’s own campaign, which made a pitch to Democrats via robocalls on Monday, hoping to tap anger over Romney’s opposition to the auto industry bailout.

The potential effects of such political mischief are often overstated. But Jensen said it could end up being the “deciding factor” in Michigan.

“Santorum will need about 50,000 (Democrats) to overcome Romney’s early vote advantage,” he said.

Early Votes Aren’t Erased

As many as 200,000 Michiganders cast early votes and most of them — often seniors — are thought to have supported Romney.

A similar dynamic is one reason Romney remains favored in Arizona. Many voters there “frankly are lukewarm about him, but they don’t see anybody else winning the general election,” said Mike Hellon, a former member of the Republican National Committee from the state.

“As candidates rose and fell in the last few months as alternatives to Romney, Santorum is the most recent, but he has absolutely no organization in the state at all,” Hellon said. “Romney was way ahead when the early voting started four weeks ago, so those ballots are not subject to voters changing their minds.”

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.