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Santorum Presents Strong Challenge to Romney on Home Turf

Jim Malone

February 21, 2012

For the presidential campaign of Republican Mitt Romney, it was never supposed to work like this. Romney’s backers always saw his home state of Michigan as a firewall, their “Ace in the Hole,” if you will, in a long and drawn out primary election battle.

But now Romney faces the fight of his life in a state where he grew up and where his father, George, served as a popular governor in the 1960’s before making a run for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination in 1968.

Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum has emerged as Romney’s main challenger in Michigan and in national polls as well. Some national polls show Santorum with a big edge over Romney while his margin in Michigan is somewhat smaller. Small enough, in fact, that the expected tsunami of anti-Santorum ads funded by the Romney campaign and its Super-Pac allies could wind up turning the tide, much as Romney was able to do to Newt Gingrich in Florida after Gingrich won a rousing victory in South Carolina.

But the question is will the Romney campaign’s attacks on Santorum work as effectively in Michigan as they have in other states? Santorum appears to be connecting with conservative voters in Michigan and elsewhere because of his strong views on social issues, especially his opposition to abortion and gay marriage.

Remember, Michigan is the home of the so-called “Reagan Democrats” of the 1980s, voters who for years had supported Democratic candidates but who became disillusioned with the party after they perceived a leftward shift in the 1960’s and 1970’s. These Reagan Democrats believe in traditional values and often want a candidate who goes beyond the economic arguments that Romney has been trying to make.

Santorum seems to be hitting his stride in appealing to conservatives who want a more “in your face” candidate to take on President Obama in the November general election. Romney has simply never been that candidate for many conservatives, and it seems the harder he tries to be that candidate, the more conservatives distrust him.

The evolution of Santorum as Romney’s main challenger follows a pattern begun in 2011 when conservatives began shopping for an alternative to Romney right from the start, fearful that Romney’s political career in Democratic Massachusetts was simply not the pedigree they were willing to embrace in 2012.

Romney continues to have the edge in fundraising, organization and support from the Republican Party establishment. But if Santorum can pull off an upset win in Michigan next Tuesday, it would change the entire dynamic of a Republican race that has been anything but predictable since last year.

Dark Horses and a Brokered Convention

A lot of political analysts dismiss the thought, but even the prospect of a Santorum victory in Michigan has made a lot of Republican Party leaders very uneasy. Some have even suggested the possibility that a Santorum upset in Romney’s home state would so scramble the Republican race that it would increase the chances that some other prominent Republicans might change their minds and get into the race. Among those included in this somewhat far-fetched scenario are former Florida governor Jeb Bush, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels.

All three decided against a run for president this year and none have given any indication of changing that stance no matter how the Republican nomination battle proceeds. But a Santorum victory in Michigan would give pause to those Republican leaders who believe his nomination would lead to an easy second term win for President Obama and would, at least, increase the speculation that the party would welcome someone else getting in the race.

The problem with all this is, of course, that it takes money, organization and most importantly, desire, to launch a presidential campaign, especially on short notice. And none of the gentlemen mentioned above have shown any inclination toward throwing their hat in the ring.

Another impact from a Santorum victory in Michigan would likely be increased speculation about the possibility of a brokered national nomination convention in Tampa, Florida, at the end of August.

Neither major political party has had a national nominating convention go beyond the first ballot since the early 1950’s. But if neither Santorum nor Romney can break out in a significant way in the weeks ahead, and both Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul remain in the race and siphon off votes from the top two contenders, the chances could grow that the nomination won’t be settled until the convention in August, something hard to imagine in the modern era of political campaigns.

So hard to imagine, in fact, that the experts and analysts pretty much regard it as a pipedream. But it would be a dream come true for the cable and broadcast TV networks that would actually have a reason to cover the ins and outs of the Republican convention for days on end.

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