Feb 262012
 
Authors: McClatchy Newspapers David Lightman

SHELBY TOWNSHIP, Mich. — Mitt Romney must win Michigan’s Republican primary Tuesday. So does Rick Santorum.

They’re going about it in very different ways.

Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, promotes himself as a “son of Detroit” who left to conquer the business world. His carefully scripted rallies feature not only reminiscences of the old Detroit area neighborhood, but also reminders of his history as a successful corporate turnaround artist.

Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, offers a different story. He roared into Michigan with strong momentum, having won three contests this month. His freewheeling stump speeches usually are laced with heartfelt reminders of his devotion to God and family.
Polls have shown Santorum and Romney running about even. A Romney loss in a state where, on paper, everything should go his way would be a serious blow. A Santorum defeat would raise new questions about his appeal beyond die-hard conservatives.

A victory by either man would demonstrate appeal in a blue-collar industrial state and give him an important boost in next week’s primary in neighboring Ohio.

Michigan Republicans are torn. Do the residents of this economically ailing state put aside their skepticism about the depth of Romney’s conservatism and choose the businessman who seems best positioned to win in November? Or do they follow their heart sand pick Santorum?

And where does Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who campaigned vigorously over the weekend, fit?

Shelby Township, a Detroit suburb visited by both Santorum and Romney in recent weeks, is in an area known in political circles as the suburbs that made famous “Reagan Democrats,” rank-and-file workers who felt Democrats let them down economically and culturally and began voting Republican in the 1980s.

At Biggby Coffee on Van Dyke Avenue, the customers drink the $2 java and tell the state’s still-evolving Republican primary story.

“The jury’s out on who people like most,” said franchise owner David Danyko.

Customers Stan Grot, Bo Chapman and Mike Torres have similar views — solidly conservative, eager for lower taxes and less regulation, and wary of President Barack Obama.

Grot supports Romney. Chapman prefers Santorum. Torres likes Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker who’s making virtually no effort in Michigan.

Grot, the township clerk, worked in manufacturing engineering at General Motors. He lost his job in 1980, spent a year on unemployment and left the Democratic Party.

“I listened to Ronald Reagan’s message,” he said. “Ronald Reagan spoke to opportunity and personal responsibility. He created an environment so businesses could thrive.”

Chapman, director of student ministries at St. Peter Lutheran Church in Macomb, thinks Romney’s a fine man. But he likes how Santorum is reaching higher, promoting strong families and more personal responsibility.

“He can impact the lives of people in a powerful way,” Chapman said. “I love it when he talks about family. That’s so important to address before you get too far off on economic issues.”

Grot countered that “there’s no consistency with Santorum.” He cited Senate votes to raise the debt ceiling and to approve a budget that included funds for Planned Parenthood. He suggested that Santorum is too extreme.

At a nearby table, Torres said Romney is “too nice of a guy.” He likes Santorum, but “he follows the Bible as a politician, and he’s going to get beaten.”

A Macomb builder and eveloper whose business had gone up and down recently, Torres likes Gingrich’s brash style.

Similar attitudes echo throughout the state. People are warming to Santorum, and they like his social conservative message, but worry that he’s not electable.

They respect Romney but want to see more passion and more genuine concern for blue-collar workers. They fret over his criticism of the auto industry bailouts, support of near-universal health care in Massachusetts, and his ties to Wall Street.

(Romney was asked about his corporate ties at a tea party rally in Milford. “I don’t apologize for success,” he said.

He got warm applause from the crowd, telling stories about his “many years in this great state.” He described his economic plan, including a 20 percent across-the-board cut in income tax rates, and he bashed Obama as unqualified to be president.

His strategists insist that a Michigan loss would not be a huge psychological blow. Romney also claims New Hampshire and Massachusetts as home states, said senior adviser Ron Kaufman, “so we’ll probably win two out of three.” Romney won New Hampshire last month, and Massachusetts holds its primary March 6.

Santorum tries hard to stay on the subject of economics but invariably winds up describing his background as the son and grandson of immigrants and his long devotion to social conservative issues.

“I worked my way to the success that I have and I’m proud of it,” he told a crowd of conservatives Saturday in Troy, a Detroit suburb. “I wasn’t for Obamacare, Romneycare or any other care except your care. I wasn’t for bailouts.”

Conservatives love it.

“I like his stand on abortion and same-sex marriage. I’m a good Catholic, and he’s a good Catholic,” said David Hollobaugh, an Allen Park retiree. “He reminds me of my son, clean cut and moral,” said Barbara Thomas, a Taylor retiree.

But can social issues provide enough momentum to topple Romney? Can Romney’s economic message trump conservatives’ appreciation of Santorum’s views?

The jury remains out.

Barbara Ziemba, a Livonia administrative assistant, heard Romney recently in Milford. “I like what he said,” she said. “But I just haven’t made up my mind.”

Many echoed the view of Dee Kubic, a Farmington Hills housewife at the same rally. When she goes to the polls, she said, her choice is “going to be a gut feeling.”

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