Michigan GOP primary’s tone overwhelmingly negative

Posted Feb. 27, 2012, at 8:09 p.m.

DETROIT — Here’s what Michigan Republicans are hearing over and over as they prepare to vote Tuesday in the state’s crucial GOP presidential primary: Mitt Romney’s an elitist insider who loves Wall Street. Rick Santorum is a fake who talks one way but voted another.

The candidate-bashing by the rival campaigns and their allies has been relentless, as the race between Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, and Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, remains too close to call.

“It’s going to be a real nail-biter,” said Bill Ballenger, the editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nonpartisan newsletter.

Romney has a 1.5 percentage-point lead in an average of surveys conducted Sunday, according to the website RealClearPolitics. Arizona also holds a primary Tuesday, and Romney has a comfortable lead in polls there.

But Michigan is the pivotal battleground. Romney, who grew up in the Detroit area, has touted himself as a hometown candidate. He’s been trying hard, through advertising and stump speeches, to define Santorum as unfaithful to his core principles.

But it’s not clear that his negative, scorched-earth strategy, which played a big role in toppling Newt Gingrich, a former speaker of the House of Representatives, in Florida’s primary Jan. 31, is working in Michigan.

Santorum has gained a following with his strong conservative social-values message and down-to-earth style. In a state where the December unemployment rate was 9.3 percent and the auto industry has been ailing for decades, Santorum gets cheers by branding Romney as an out-of-touch patrician.

Everyone is going negative.

Texas U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, who’s been waging a spirited campaign in Michigan in recent days but is running third in polls, has an ad that tars Santorum as a “fake” fiscal conservative.

“Is this dude serious?” a narrator asks. “Fiscal conservative? Really?”

Romney and his backers push the same theme. Restore Our Future, a group formed by his wealthy donors, is running a spot that ends by calling Santorum a big-spending Washington insider.

Its evidence: five Santorum votes to raise the debt ceiling. Support of budget legislation that included family-planning funds and earmarks, which are local projects that lawmakers insert into spending bills. Santorum has said that such projects are vital to his state, but tea party activists abhor them as evidence of out-of-control spending.

Santorum has had help making his case this week, from supporters in the Red White and Blue political action committee — and President Barack Obama’s campaign.

Santorum is running ads with a reminder, “Romney adviser admits Romneycare was blueprint for Obamacare.” In his speeches, Santorum blasts Romney as an elitist who used to be a moderate.

Romney ran for Massachusetts governor in 2002 as sympathetic to abortion rights; now he says he’s firmly anti-abortion. As governor, he signed into law a near-universal coverage state health care plan that’s considered the model for the 2010 federal health care law, which Republicans despise.

Adding to the anti-Romney chorus are Obama ads in Michigan that recall Romney’s opposition to bailouts for General Motors and Chrysler. A headline appears from a 2008 New York Times opinion piece that Romney wrote: “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.” Obama appears, and the narrator says, “Not him.”

There’s also a strong chance that Democrats will vote Tuesday for Santorum, who party loyalists think would be easier for Obama to beat. Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Mark Brewer invited his party members to vote in the GOP primary Tuesday, as it’s open.

Ballenger estimated, though, that non-Republican voters could be just as prone to vote for Paul, who has a sizable following among independents. Gingrich has made virtually no effort in Michigan.

The real test Tuesday will involve how well each candidate successfully demonized the other, and that’s hard to gauge. Many Michigan voters insist that they tune out the cacophony.

“I can see right through it,” said Paul Burrow, a Milford retiree.

There’s also some evidence that all the noise alienated voters; Ballenger noted that historically, negative campaigns depress turnout.

“It turns me off, definitely,” said Ray Lauth, a Lincoln Park caterer, who said it diminished the candidates behind it.

“All it does is give ammunition to Democrats,” said Steve Clement, an undecided voter who manages a small automobile supply company in Commerce.

He’s leaning to Romney, if only because “it’s probably our best shot at defeating Obama.”

But there’s another wild card: In this age of technology, no one’s quite sure what may work.

“It’s a different age, and most people have DVRs,” Chris Egan, an Allen Park police officer, said of the negative campaigns. “You just go right past it.”

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