GWEN IFILL: This was primary day in Arizona and Michigan, with 59 Republican delegates at stake. Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum were the main contenders, and tensions were high, especially in Michigan.
The Romney campaign went into the day struggling to hold off what has turned out to be an aggressive and heated challenge from Rick Santorum in Romney’s native state. In the final days before today’s open primary, the Santorum campaign has staked its claim in Michigan, even using automated robocalls to get Democratic crossover votes.
MAN: Michigan Democrats can vote in the Republican primary on Tuesday. Why is it so important? Romney supported the bailouts for his Wall Street billionaire buddies, but opposed the auto bailouts. That was a slap in the face to every Michigan worker. And we’re not going to let Romney get away with it.
GWEN IFILL: As polls showed an Election Day dead heat, Romney accused Santorum of using dirty tricks to win.
MITT ROMNEY (R): It’s very easy to excite the base with incendiary comments. And we have seen throughout the campaign that if you’re willing to say really outrageous things that are accusative and attacking of President Obama, that you’re going to jump up in the polls.
You know, I’m not willing to light my hair on fire to try and get support. I am who I am.
GWEN IFILL: Left unmentioned in the Santorum calls, the former Pennsylvania senator opposes all bailouts.
Santorum, campaigning today in Ohio, where voters go to the polls next week, defended his efforts to woo Democrats as an appeal to working-class values.
RICK SANTORUM (R): It’s a message that is playing well, hopefully very well today in Michigan.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
RICK SANTORUM: And — and it’s a message — it’s a message that we’re selling to not just Republicans, but Republicans and Democrats, Reagan Democrats, who were the key for us winning Ohio and Pennsylvania and Michigan back in the day when Ronald Reagan represented a Republican Party that stood for all of the values that made this country great.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It is good to be with some autoworkers today.
GWEN IFILL: President Obama indirectly joined the fray today, speaking in Washington to a United Auto Workers union meeting that White House officials insisted wasn’t a campaign appearance.
Washington had little choice, he said, but to intervene to save the stumbling auto industry.
BARACK OBAMA: The other option was to do absolutely nothing and let these companies fail. And you will recall there were some politicians who said we should do that.
BARACK OBAMA: Some even said we should let Detroit go bankrupt.
BARACK OBAMA: Or you’ve got folks saying, well, the real problem is — what we really disagreed with was the workers, they all made out like bandits — that saving the auto industry was just about paying back the unions.
BARACK OBAMA: I mean, even by the standards of this town, that’s a load of you know what.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
GWEN IFILL: Voters also cast ballots today in Arizona, where the latest polls show Romney well ahead.
Two other Republican hopefuls, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul, left the Michigan fight to Romney and Santorum, moving ahead to Georgia and Virginia.
The candidates were still sparring as voters went to the polls today in Michigan, where the neck-and-neck race presents a special challenge for native son Mitt Romney.
Here to handicap the day’s contest there is Bill Ballenger, editor of “Inside Michigan Politics.” He joins us from East Lansing.
Bill Ballenger, when we talked about this a couple of weeks ago, Romney still seemed to have an advantage. How did it get this tight?
BILL BALLENGER, Inside Michigan Politics: Mitt Romney closed the gap, seemed to be pulling ahead at the end last week. And then all of a sudden, his momentum was arrested over the weekend. Now it’s a dead heat. It’s a jump ball. Anybody could win this race.
GWEN IFILL: You say, all of a sudden, his momentum was arrested. Was it arrested because Santorum targeted him or because of something that he did that he lost support?
BILL BALLENGER: I don’t think he did anything specific to damage himself. Yes, there were a few gaffes and missteps that have been replicated in the news media nationally.
But I don’t think they hurt him that much. And for that matter, some of Santorum’s statements, as you know, got a lot of national publicity, like his remarks about the president having a phony theology and anybody who wants to go to college is a snob.
Guess what? That probably helped Rick Santorum with the people who are voting the Republican primary today in Michigan.
GWEN IFILL: So those weren’t necessarily gaffes. It’s not a gaffe I guess if it works.
So tell me about this crossover vote ploy or effort or strategy that’s being employed, this idea that Michigan voters who don’t have to be registered with one particular party to participate in any primary can show up and throw something a spanner in the works at the last minute if they want.
BILL BALLENGER: That’s absolutely right.
Anybody can go in and vote in either party’s primary today. I think what was wrong, if wrong is the right word, with the Santorum automated phone calls is they were disingenuous, in the sense they tried to make it sound like these were Democrats calling Democratic voters and urging them to cross over and vote in the Republican primary on the grounds that Mitt Romney should be punished for turning his back on the domestic auto industry in Michigan, when, in fact, Rick Santorum himself has exactly the same position on that particular issue as Mitt Romney.
So it was hypocritical, it was disingenuous, and it was a dirty trick.
GWEN IFILL: Has this crossover vote, this idea of appealing to the other party to vote for you, has this worked in Michigan in the past?
BILL BALLENGER: It has in 2000, a famous election, where many Democrats and independents crossed over and voted in the Republican primary for John McCain.
They had a couple of reasons for doing that, principal among them being that John McCain was a more moderate candidate than George W. Bush. And John McCain killed George Bush among the independents and Democrats in voting in 2000, even though George Bush won by about a 2-to-1 margin over John McCain among Republicans.
So the overall result, McCain won Michigan. And I think Santorum would like to see that happen again today. The only difference is really when you stop and think about it, philosophically, there’s no reason Democrats would really be attracted to Rick Santorum.
GWEN IFILL: How much did Mitt Romney spend? How much has he staked on this win in Michigan, his native state, and how much has Santorum spent relatively in terms of time and treasure?
BILL BALLENGER: It looks like Romney has outspent Santorum about 2-to-1. Now, that sounds like a lot, but guess what. It’s not as much as 10-to-1 and 20-to-1, which is about the margin in spending superiority Romney had over Santorum in all these previous states.
Santorum kept himself in the race by being able to spend enough to make himself competitive. And then he’s relying on the Tea Parties and the ground game he’s mustered to try and put it all together in one big package today and win the election.
GWEN IFILL: And it’s fair to say there is a significant enough very conservative electorate in Michigan to make a difference for Rick Santorum at this point?
BILL BALLENGER: I think so.
Almost half the voters in Michigan today are estimated to be strongly supportive of the Tea Party. That’s what they say. And these people have, generally speaking, been strongly supportive of Rick Santorum vis-a-vis Mitt Romney in all the polls that have been taken the last couple of weeks.
GWEN IFILL: Where are the late — we always watch the late deciders, the people who have not told pollsters which way they’re going to go until the last moment. Any sense of where they’re going today?
BILL BALLENGER: I think there’s a feeling that if you haven’t decided to vote for Mitt Romney by now, you’re probably not going to, unless maybe there’s a backlash today here in Michigan against the news of the Santorum robocalls. That could be a decider. But we’ll have to do the exit polls and find out.
GWEN IFILL: Bill Ballenger of Inside Michigan Politics, thanks so much.
BILL BALLENGER: Thank you, Gwen.