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Romney fights to stave off embarrassment in Michigan

John Makely / msnbc.com

Michigan voters go to the polls to vote in St. Clair Shores on Feb. 28, 2012.


ROYAL OAK, Mich. – Mitt Romney found himself fighting to infuse his presidential candidacy with new energy and stave off embarrassment in Tuesday’s Republican primary in Michigan.

A native son of Michigan, where his father served as governor, Romney’s facing high expectations about his ability to beat former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who’s directly challenged him with message focusing on the middle class and a manufacturing revival.

Romney had been expected to easily win here until Santorum upset the former Massachusetts governor in a trio of nominating contests earlier this month. If momentum carries Santorum to victory on Tuesday in Michigan, it would put Romney’s campaign – long considered the favorite among Republicans seeking the nomination – on precarious political footing.

“I think it’s going to be an embarrassment if he does lose. I don’t think it looks good when you win in your home state, but I’m hopeful that he’ll pull it out,” said Julie Wells, a teacher from Birmingham who intends to vote for Romney, at a rally Monday evening in this Detroit suburb.

John Makely / msnbc.com

Rick Santorum has a quick bite to eat before speaking to the Livonia Chamber of Commerce on Feb. 27. in Livonia, Mich.

Arizona also hosts its primary on Tuesday evening. Romney is generally favored to win that contest, while Michigan has been transformed into the key battleground for the trajectory of the Republican race.

Romney’s stop in Royal Oak represented a distilled version of the message he’s preached over the past week, emphasizing his roots in Michigan, his private sector experience and his skill in leading an economic turnaround – an especially important message in a state where the downturn has been especially pronounced.

“I’m going to be able to talk about the economy with credibility that he doesn’t have,” Romney said of President Barack Obama at a campaign event on Monday evening.

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The boisterous gathering was intended to project a kind of momentum and inevitability for Romney that was far from certain. Polling over the past week has suggested Romney is running virtually even with Santorum, a candidate who’s aggressively courting Michigan’s conservative, blue-collar voters.

“Santorum, when it comes down to it, is talking the talk and walking the walk,” Republican State Sen. Jack Brandenburg, a Santorum voter, said in a weekend interview. “For him and Romney to be neck and neck in Romney’s home state with the reputation that Romney’s family has – I think that says a lot for what Rick Santorum has done.”

A Romney loss on Tuesday could threaten to upend a nominating process that had been assumed to be tending in his favor with just a week before a major delegate haul is at stake on March 6, Super Tuesday.

John Makely / msnbc.com

Bob Pohl, of Spring Arbor, Mich., holds up an old campaign poster of George Romney, Mitt Romney's father, during a rally at the Caster Concepts company in Albion, Mich.

“I think if Romney loses in Michigan, he really doesn’t have a chance of beating Obama,” said Tim Donnelly, a former construction worker who went back to school to study accounting because of the poor economy here. Donnelly was an undecided voter as of Monday night, but said he was leaning toward Romney.

Santorum might have already inflicted a degree of damage against Romney, threatening to drag out the fight for the GOP nomination, if nothing else. A Monday poll of Republican primary voters in Ohio, which hosts its primary on Super Tuesday, found Santorum leading Romney.

"We're doing remarkably well for being as outspent as we are and feel very, very good about the reaction we're getting as we travel around the state of Michigan,” Santorum said Monday morning in Livonia, Mich. “We're getting good crowds, and obviously, the people are reacting well to our message."

If Romney does manage a victory on Tuesday evening, he’ll accomplish it by relying on the same playbook that led to wins in New Hampshire and Florida. In both of those states, the Romney campaign and a supportive super PAC outspent Republican opponents, and the candidate himself went more aggressively after candidates who posed a threat to his lead.

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Romney also enjoys being seen as more electable than Santorum or the two other remaining Republican candidates, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Rep. Ron Paul.

“I’m actually hoping he [Romney] will come out,” said Louann Bierlein Palmer, a professor at Western Michigan University and self-described moderate Republican, of Romney’s performance in Michigan. An Obama voter in 2008, she said she couldn’t support Santorum as the nominee “because I frankly prefer to have a choice between two moderates.”

But Romney has also committed gaffes that reminded Michigan voters of his immense wealth, including mentioning his wife’s two Cadillacs at a speech Friday at Ford Field – a choice of venue that was panned for its cavernous backdrop, given the thousands of empty seats in the stadium.

John Makely / msnbc.com

Mitt Romney thanks Kid Rock after he and his band performed at the rally supporting Romney's campaign for President.

The difference on Tuesday might stem from Romney’s deep roots in the state. The Monday night rally pulled out all the stops, and featured speeches by Gov. Rick Snyder and other statewide officials. It was capped by a performance by Kid Rock, a Detroit native whose song, “Born Free,” was adopted as the Romney campaign’s anthem.

“That’s a big factor,” said Robert Bolton, a Methodist pastor who said he’d make up his mind between Romney and Santorum on Tuesday morning. “I was a young Republican when his dad was running for governor.”

“When you leave home, Michigan’s a unique place. Our roots are always here, and people who aren’t from Michigan, the transplants, they don’t quite understand that,” Bolton added.