SHELBY TOWNSHIP, Mich. — Mitt Romney must win Michigan’s Republican primary Tuesday. So must 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 hearts and 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.”
Grot liked how the 1981 tax cuts put more money in consumers’ pockets, and he opened a restaurant in Hamtramck. He ran it for eight years before selling the place; it’s still thriving today.
Grot is solidly for Romney. “He comes as close to the Ronald Reagan message as I can think of,” he said..
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.”
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.