Michigan race shows Romney, Santorum differences

February 27, 2012 - 1:56 PM
Santorum 2012

Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, left, with his daughter, Elizabeth, right, visits with supportes during a campaign rally, Sunday, Feb. 26, 2012, in Davison, Mich. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) — Republican presidential contenders Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney wooed Michigan voters in appearances that were vastly different both in substance and in style — and that illustrated the contrasts between the two front-runners for the GOP presidential nomination.

Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator pitching blue-collar populism and his Christian faith, used a visit to a nightclub Sunday on the outskirts of this town to outline a vision of American greatness driven by the workers who he says built the country.

"We know what works in America. Bottom up," Santorum told the 600 people in his audience, which included many people still dressed in their church clothes, as well as others wearing Detroit Red Wings jackets and camouflage hunting caps. He spoke for nearly an hour from a podium before taking questions. The crowd whistled, cheered and shouted back, running through the Declaration of Independence like a call-and-answer sports cheer.

"They are endowed by their ..." Santorum started. "CREATOR!" the crowd shouted back. When a young girl standing near the stage piped up: "You should be president!" Santorum smiled and thanked her. "Out of the mouths of babes," he said to the crowd, easily referencing Matthew 21:16.

A bit later at a soaring ballroom in the Park Place Hotel downtown, a state representative and a congressman stalled for about 45 minutes before Romney stepped onto the stage at the front of the room, an enormous campaign sign hanging behind him. The former Massachusetts governor spoke for about 20 minutes, offering his standard campaign speech with some added focus on his Michigan roots.

"The right course for America is to believe in free people and free enterprises — and I do and I will," Romney told the crowd of about 700. He cited the "pioneers and innovators" who helped America thrive and said: "Their success did not make us poorer. Their success made us better off!" He barely mentioned religion, stopping only to emphasize the reference to the creator in the Declaration of Independence and citing the motto, "In God We Trust." He took no questions from his crowd, made up of men in jackets and one with a ball cap advertising the Jack Nicklaus-designed golf courses at the nearby Grand Traverse Resort.

How Romney and Santorum court Michigan voters — and who they're targeting — ahead of Tuesday's primary illustrates the differences between Romney, for more than a year considered the Republican to beat, and Santorum, his current top challenger for the GOP nomination. Polls show the two men in a close race in this struggling Rust Belt state as both try to win over the thousands of voters who have been out of work for years as their state has struggled to replace manufacturing jobs that powered its economy for decades.

Santorum, a strict Catholic who wears sweater vests and highlights his background as the senator from another suffering manufacturing state, Pennsylvania, is directly appealing to the Michigan's vibrant tea party movement and religious social conservatives. Romney, a multimillionaire former business executive and a Mormon, is stressing his birth and upbringing in this state, playing to the Republican establishment that helped his father become governor decades ago.

In primaries and caucuses that already have been held, exit and entrance polls show Romney has done far better among higher income voters than he has with those who make less than $50,000 a year. And people who don't identify themselves as evangelical Christians backed him in much higher numbers than those who say they are evangelical.

Playing to that divide, Santorum is selling himself as the conservative crusader, a deeply religious man from a blue-collar state who will go to Washington and stand fast against the cultural and economic forces that he says are encroaching on traditional families and manufacturing jobs.

"More people go to church on Sunday than go to all the professional sporting events combined in a year," Santorum says, dubbing his jobs plan "supply side economics for the working man."

"There are a lot of people in this country who want to use their hands and their minds together to make something," Santorum said Saturday in St. Clair Shores, where he appeared with almost no senior advisers in tow. "That's their vocation — that's what they were made to do, that's what they want to do, that's what they love doing. . And guess what, there's less and less chance to do that."

Santorum's policies echo this philosophy. He's proposing cutting the corporate tax to 17 percent from 35 percent, and slashing corporate taxes for manufacturers to zero, a move he says will help bring back blue collar jobs. He barely mentions the labor unions that helped keep those jobs well-paying.

Romney almost always focuses on his general economic message.

"If you want someone who will dramatically and fundamentally change Washington and bring you less government and more jobs, then I'm you're guy," Romney said Sunday as he has on numerous occasions. He earned more laughter than usual for mentioning his boyhood cross-country road trips in his parents' Rambler, the audience obviously familiar with the old model of car his father retooled when he was running American Motors. Later, he posed for pictures and signed autographs.

There are other differences.

Romney's interactions with voters throughout his events are shorter and much less frequent than Santorum's.

Santorum will hold court just about anywhere that will allow him, including churches, while Romney hosts many of his events at small business and local factories, where he'll often tour the facility with the company's owner, founder or CEO before speaking with a group of the company's workers — and a bank of local TV cameras.

When a reporter mingled with the crowd and approached Santorum after Sunday's event, the candidate stopped to answer a question about whether he supports raising the minimum wage along with inflation, as Romney has said he does. "I am not in support of that. That's inflationary and doesn't make any sense," Santorum said. "It's bad policy."

Romney hasn't responded to questions from the national traveling press corps in 19 days, and attempts to approach him after campaign events are met with a smile — and no other response.