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In Michigan, Romney ‘Is Going to Have to Fight for His Life’ vs. Santorum

February 15, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Several national polls now show GOP hopeful Rick Santorum in a new dead heat with longtime front-runner Mitt Romney. Gwen Ifill discusses Santorum's rise and efforts to win Michigan's Feb. 28 primary with The Washington Post's Dan Balz and Bill Ballenger of the Inside Michigan Politics newsletter.
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GWEN IFILL: And to the political campaign.

A series of new national polls finds former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum has become a serious new challenger to perennial front-runner Mitt Romney, throwing yet another twist into a tortured race.

It’s hard to argue that the last eight days have not been good for Rick Santorum. Only one week after the former Pennsylvania senator swept three nominating contests on a single day, several national polls now show him in a new dead heat with Mitt Romney. A New York Times/CBS News survey puts Santorum at 30 percent, with Romney at 27 percent. The three-point margin falls within the poll’s sampling error.

Santorum spent today campaigning in North Dakota, which holds its caucuses in March. That follows a visit yesterday to Idaho.

RICK SANTORUM (R): Two months ago, I said, don’t pay attention to the polls. So now that we’re doing well in the polls, I’m not going to say, hey, everybody, pay attention to the polls. Polls come and polls go. We have just got to go out and earn it one state at a time.

GWEN IFILL: One state in Santorum’s sights, Michigan, where the former Massachusetts governor was born and raised. Until this week, Romney was the prohibitive favorite headed into that February 28 primary, in part because his father was once Michigan governor.

But Santorum announced plans today to buy television ad time in Michigan and five other states.

This ad, released today, takes aim squarely at Romney.

NARRATOR: Mitt Romney’s negative attack machine is back on full-throttle. This time, Romney’s firing his mud at Rick Santorum. And, in the end, Mitt Romney’s ugly attacks are going to backfire.

GWEN IFILL: The pro-Romney super PAC Restore Our Future is punching back with an ad targeting Santorum’s congressional record.

NARRATOR: How did Rick Santorum actually vote? Santorum voted to raise the debt limit five times and for billions in wasteful projects, including the bridge to nowhere.

GWEN IFILL: Romney campaigns in his home state tonight, while Santorum will be there tomorrow, addressing the Detroit Economic Club.

With more on Santorum’s rise and the battle for Michigan voters, we are joined from East Lansing by Bill Ballenger, editor of the “Inside Michigan Politics” newsletter, and here by Dan Balz of The Washington Post.

Bill Ballenger, the most surprising part of this latest switch in leads is Rick Santorum in Michigan. How’s he really doing there?

BILL BALLENGER, Inside Michigan Politics: It’s amazing. He has no presence or history here in Michigan at all, but he’s the un-Romney. He’s the anti-Romney within the Republican Party right now.

And a poll marketing resource group today showed him ahead by 10 points. That is in sync with three other polls that have come out over the last three days that show him leading Mitt Romney by anywhere from seven to 13 points.

GWEN IFILL: Is he suddenly surging ahead here because of something that Mitt Romney didn’t do? Has he not been taking care of the home base?

BILL BALLENGER: Mitt Romney has done everything right in traditional terms, Gwen. That’s the agonizing part of it for Mitt Romney. He must be tearing his hair out, because he has raised more money here. He’s been in the state constantly for five years.

He won the state here over John McCain four years ago. I think, Gwen, what is happening is, these campaigns are being nationalized. People here in Michigan are affected as much as they are in any other state or nationally by what’s gone on over the last three months in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida.

They’re picking up on it. And it doesn’t really make any difference what Mitt Romney has done up to this time or what Rick Santorum has not done in Michigan. Rick Santorum is ahead, and Mitt Romney is going to have to fight for his life to win this state in two weeks.

GWEN IFILL: Fight for his life.

Let’s talk about the national — national look at this, Dan. Is it topsy-turvy nationally as it is in Michigan?

DAN BALZ, Chief Political Reporter, The Washington Post: It is.

I mean, if you look at the whole series of polls — you cited one, but there are four polls that are out this week that suddenly show Rick Santorum roughly, even or slightly ahead of Gov. Romney in the national polls. And The Post and ABC had a poll 10 days ago, and it showed Romney with a healthy lead and with Santorum 18 points behind.

So the swings in this race are unlike anything we have ever seen. And I think it reflects partly what Bill said, that there is a bloc within the Republican electorate that is still resistant to supporting Mitt Romney, and they have moved from candidate to candidate to candidate, looking for someone that they can kind of get behind. And every time that person rises up, whether it was Gov. Perry or Newt Gingrich or others, the Romney campaign has taken aim at them.

They’ve thrown millions of dollars in negative ads at each of them. And they have knocked them down. And so the question is, will that happen with Rick Santorum?

GWEN IFILL: Well, Dan, tell me what it is these voters are listening for. They’re not, I assume, monolithic. They’re listening for different things. Is it something in Santorum’s message that’s making them think, oh, yeah, I hadn’t heard that, I will support this guy?

DAN BALZ: I think it’s two things.

One is, I think there is genuine kind of distrust about whether Romney is truly conservative, whether they really believe he is the conservative that he claims to be. I think that’s a lot of it. The second is, up to now, Rick Santorum has been quite presentable to them in the way he’s appeared in the debates, which is mostly now they know him.

And I think what’s important at this point to remember is that most Republican voters don’t know him very well, and they’re going to get to know him a lot better over the next couple of weeks.

GWEN IFILL: For better or worse, depending on how these television ads play out.

DAN BALZ: For better — exactly. And the question is, will he be able to stand up to it when the Romney team comes after him, and will he have the wherewithal, the resources, the ability, the infrastructure to fend off these attacks?

GWEN IFILL: Bill, when we think about Michigan politics right now, we think about the economy, we think about the auto industry rescue.

And I wonder the degree to which these candidates disagree or don’t agree or have a record on these issues, whether that is also driving this latest change of fortune in Michigan.

BILL BALLENGER: It may be to a certain extent.

The poll we took showed that among people who really care about jobs and economic growth, Romney is a little bit ahead of Santorum. But in every other category, including taxes, spending, debt, Santorum is ahead. And obviously he’s way ahead on the social, cultural issues.

One thing to keep in mind, nearly half the voters in this primary coming up on Feb. 28 strongly support the Tea Party. So they’re either members of the Tea Party or they strongly support it. And among Tea Party voters, Santorum has a huge 51 to 22 percent lead over Romney.

So Romney can catch up. He did four years ago. He trailed John McCain with a week to go in Michigan, and he pulled out a victory. He can do it again. But, as Dan said, it may have to be with negative ads, like Florida against Gingrich.

GWEN IFILL: Right. Sorry, Bill, to interrupt you.

But there’s also another thing. There’s an open primary in Michigan, which means Democrats, independents, anybody can vote. Is that an opportunity to create even more mischief which isn’t showing up in the polls?

BILL BALLENGER: I think it is. You’re absolutely right.

I think as much as a quarter of the vote will come from Democrats and independents. You don’t register by party in Michigan. But the Democrats have basically given a signal that, even though they’re going to have caucuses to pick their delegates to their national convention in May, they won’t penalize people who vote in the primary.

I don’t think Democrats and independents voting in the primary in Michigan for a Republican primary are going to say, we want to help Mitt Romney. I think they’d like to cause him some grief. I think they’d like to discombobulate the Michigan Republican Party.

And there may be some angry independent and Democratic voters who don’t like Mitt Romney’s stand on the auto bailout by the federal government and might want to go in and make some mischief.

GWEN IFILL: He had advocated for a structured bankruptcy.

Dan, where is Newt Gingrich in all this? It seems last time we were talking about someone coming from behind and then suddenly overtaking Romney, he was the one who benefited from it. Why isn’t he benefiting now?

DAN BALZ: Well, I think he was hurt by the loss in Florida. He was hurt by Nevada. I think he was hurt by the performance the night of the Nevada caucuses, when he came out, and rather than doing a concession speech, had a press conference in which he appeared to be pretty angry at Gov. Romney.

He didn’t really compete hard in the three states that Rick Santorum won a week ago, in part because they weren’t awarding delegates. And I think that he has, in part, decided to let Santorum fight it out in Michigan with Romney, and he’s pointing towards some of the Super Tuesday states in the South.

I think it’s — I think it’s Newt Gingrich’s calculation that anything that hurts Mitt Romney at this point and keeps the race moving is good for everybody who’s left. And he has no intention of getting out.

GWEN IFILL: Though he’s not really — but he’s not competing in Michigan either.

DAN BALZ: Not hard at this point.

GWEN IFILL: Which kind of helps Santorum a little bit.

Let me ask you both briefly just for this — briefly, because it’s a story about the quick — I mean, question about the quickness of this race, how quickly this thing has been turning around. How much does that help an underdog and how much does that hurt a frontrunner, Dan?

DAN BALZ: Well, I think it’s discomforting for everybody, because there is such weak allegiance among a big part of the Republican Party at this point for any candidate, that the mood swings, if you will, within the party create problems for both the people who are benefiting from them and the people who are not.

You almost have to kind of say, we’re going to run the race we think is the right race to run until it’s clear that we can’t do that. And the Romney campaign may be reaching that point if they were to lose Michigan, which I’m not necessarily predicting they’re going to do. But as Bill said, Santorum right now has the lead.

GWEN IFILL: And, Bill, you have been covering Michigan for a long time. And have you seen mood swings like this before?

BILL BALLENGER: Never. Really, this is unprecedented.

I think everything Dan says is right. I think we wouldn’t be seeing mood swings if Romney had put together a steady winning streak. But he can’t seem to do it. He can’t close the deal. And as long as different people keep winning different states, the mood goes up and down.

And frankly, Gwen, to answer your question, I think that helps the underdog. I think it helps Santorum.

GWEN IFILL: Bill Ballenger of Inside Michigan Politics, Dan Balz of The Washington Post, thank you both very much.