On a biting, brittle mid-February morning 30 miles north of Detroit, Rick Santorum plants his flag in a patch of turf as politically fertile as exists in these United States. For three decades, Macomb County, Michigan, has been both a bellwether and a battleground, as its fabled Reagan Democrats first abandoned the party of Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, and Mike Dukakis, then gradually drifted back in support of Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and Barack Obama. Today in Macomb, the action is as much on the Republican as the Democratic side, with the county GOP riven by a split between mainstream and tea-party cadres. And yet in demographic terms, Macomb remains Macomb: overwhelmingly white and mostly non-college-educated, heavily Catholic and staunchly socially conservative, economically anti-globalist and culturally anti-swell.
All of which is to say that when Santorum takes the podium to address a Michigan Faith & Freedom Coalition rally in Shelby Charter Township, the 1,500 souls he sees before him are his kind of people—and soon enough he is speaking their language. To explain how America has always differed from other nations, Santorum invokes the Almighty: “We believe … we are children of a loving God.” To elucidate the evils of Obamacare, Dodd-Frank, and cap-and-trade, he inveighs against liberal elites: “They want to control you, because like the kings of old, they believe they know better than you.” To highlight what’s at stake in 2012, he unfurls a grand (and entirely farkakte) historical flourish: “This decision will be starker than at any time since the election of 1860”—you know, the one featuring Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas on the eve of the Civil War.
But before the nation faces that decision, Michigan has its own to make: between him and Mitt Romney in the Republican primary that takes place on February 28. “Do you want somebody who can go up against Barack Obama, take him on on the big issues … or do you want someone who can just manage Washington a little bit better?” Santorum asks, as the audience rises cheering to its feet. “That’s your choice. What does Michigan have to say?”
What Michiganders are telling pollsters is that their affections are split evenly between the two men, despite Romney’s status as the scion of one of the Wolverine State’s great political families. In Ohio, arguably the most important of ten states with primaries or caucuses on Super Tuesday, March 6, two recent surveys found Santorum holding a wide lead there, and the Gallup national tracking poll put him ahead of Romney by eight points as of February 24. Taken together, all this more than makes clear that Santorum has emerged as the dominant conservative alternative to Romney. It illustrates a shift in momentum so pronounced that, unless Romney takes Michigan and fares strongly on Super Tuesday, his ascension to his party’s nomination will be in serious jeopardy, as the calls for a late-entering white-knight candidate escalate—and odds of an up-for-grabs Republican convention rise. “Right now, I’d say they’re one in five,” says one of the GOP’s grandest grandees. “If Romney doesn’t put this thing away by Super Tuesday, I’d say they’re closer to 50-50.”
That Mitt Romney finds himself so imperiled by Rick Santorum—Rick Santorum!—is just the latest in a series of jaw-dropping developments in what has been the most volatile, unpredictable, and just plain wackadoodle Republican-nomination contest ever. Part of the explanation lies in Romney’s lameness as a candidate, in Santorum’s strength, and in the sudden efflorescence of social issues in what was supposed to be an all-economy-all-the-time affair. But even more important have been the seismic changes within the Republican Party. “Compared to 2008, all the candidates are way to the right of John McCain,” says longtime conservative activist Jeff Bell. “The fact that Romney is running with basically the same views as then but is seen as too moderate tells you that the base has moved rightward and doesn’t simply want a conservative candidate—it wants a very conservative one.”
The transfiguration of the GOP isn’t only about ideology, however. It is also about demography and temperament, as the party has grown whiter, less well schooled, more blue-collar, and more hair-curlingly populist. The result has been a party divided along the lines of culture and class: Establishment versus grassroots, secular versus religious, upscale versus downscale, highfalutin versus hoi polloi. And with those divisions have arisen the competing electoral coalitions—shirts versus skins, regulars versus red-hots—represented by Romney and Santorum, which are now increasingly likely to duke it out all spring.
Few Republicans greet that prospect sanguinely, though some argue that it will do little to hamper the party’s capacity to defeat Obama in the fall. “It’s reminiscent of the contest between Obama and Clinton,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell recently opined. “[That] didn’t seem to have done [Democrats] any harm in the general election, and I don’t think this contest is going to do us any harm, either.”