The day before Santorum’s speech in Macomb County, Romney delivers a talk of his own right next door in Oakland County, at the Greater Farmington–Livonia Chamber of Commerce Lunch. Oakland couldn’t be more different from Macomb: affluent, professional, well educated, and reasonably diverse. The Romney crowd reflects the divergence, decked out in suits and ties where Santorum’s crowd was all sweatshirts and baggy jeans. The event begins with Michigan governor Rick Snyder bestowing his endorsement on Romney. Beaming and amped up, Romney begins with a paean that reads like a parody—and instantly goes viral:
“I was born and raised here. I love this state. It seems right here. Trees are the right height. I like seeing the lakes. I love the lakes. There’s something very special here. The Great Lakes, but also all the little inland lakes that dot the parts of Michigan. I love cars. I grew up totally in love with cars. It used to be, in the fifties and sixties, if you showed me one square foot of almost any part of a car, I could tell you what brand it was, the model, and so forth. Now, with all the Japanese cars, I’m not quite so good at it. But I still know the American cars pretty well and drive a Mustang. I love cars. I love American cars. And long may they rule the world, let me tell ya.”
In his TV ads as well as on the stump, Romney has been slapping the favorite-son card on the table like a drunk at a game of strip poker, and is leaning hard on the state GOP Establishment to help him win the hand. “Regardless of the polls that show Santorum with a lead, it’s still Romney’s to lose,” says consultant and former state-party executive director Greg McNeilly. “He has massive organizational strength Santorum can’t match.” Bill Ballenger, editor of Inside Michigan Politics newsletter, agrees: “Romney has a list of endorsements as long as both your arms. He’s raised far more money here than any other candidate, including Barack Obama. Santorum is a total cipher. He’s an unknown. And he has not done anything here.”
But the savviest political players in the state also allow that, as McNeilly puts it, “the race is in flux in a way that defies conventional wisdom,” that anti-Establishment sentiments are running high in the state, and therefore Santorum might just pull off an upset. And while Eric Ferhnstrom, Romney’s spokesman, insists the primary is not a must-win for his boss, others close to the candidate admit that losing, in the words of one of them, would be “absolutely, completely fucking horrible.”
The reality is that even winning Michigan (and Arizona the same day) may not be enough to rescue Romney from the rough. “Every money guy I know thinks Romney can’t win a general election,” says a respected Washington player and presidential-campaign veteran. “Our guys on Capitol Hill are moving into survival-of-the-fittest, only-worrying-about-themselves mode. They think the damage to Romney may be done and may be irreversible—and now he might not even be the nominee. So Romney not only has to win Michigan and Arizona, but he has to have a resounding knockout on Super Tuesday or he’s gonna be in real, real trouble.”
Yet the likelihood of Romney delivering a KO, or even a TKO, on Super Tuesday is slight. According to University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato, at least five of the ten states with contests on March 6—Georgia, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Virginia—have electorates in which more than 40 percent of voters are Evangelical. That presents a significant hurdle to Romney and advantage to Santorum, provided he emerges from Michigan with either a win or a narrow enough loss that his momentum isn’t utterly halted. True, Santorum isn’t on the ballot in Virginia. But also true is that Alaska, Idaho, and North Dakota, for which there is no data available on the size of the born-again contingent, are all caucus states in which religious conservatives (and tea-partyers) are thick on the ground.
None of which suggests that Santorum, even if he wins in Michigan, is much better positioned to deal a death blow to Romney on Super Tuesday. “I still am a believer that you’ve gotta have some kind of an organization, some kind of resources, beyond living off a super-pac, to go all the way,” says Rollins. “I can’t imagine Santorum just all of a sudden putting it together and racing to the finish line. So my sense is Super Tuesday may be a day that gets split up. And, I mean, Romney’s not gonna quit. He’s spent six years of his life running for this thing, and he will have delegates. And it’s not like if he drops out all the Establishment are gonna jump on Santorum. They’re all gonna basically say Santorum can’t win.”