Al Goldis, Associated Press
Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum speaks during a rally, Monday, Feb. 20, 2012, in Muskegon, Mich.
MUSKEGON, Mich. — Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum promised Monday to revive manufacturing, cut taxes and shrink government, pledges that drew loud applause from conservative Michigan voters who said he was more in line with their values than native son and GOP rival Mitt Romney.
Santorum's growing connection with Michigan conservatives risks embarrassing Romney in his home state. Romney was counting on a strong finish in Michigan's presidential primary on Feb. 28 to carry him into the big, multistate round of voting a week later on Super Tuesday.
But Santorum, fueled by a recent trio of victories and sensing an opportunity to upset or at least bloody Romney with a strong primary finish of his own, is charging hard at a state that he says shares many of the same characteristics as his blue-collar state of Pennsylvania. Santorum pledged Monday that, under his administration of less government and more individual freedom, "manufacturing jobs will come back here to Muskegon."
Many of those at the standing-room-only rally at a Muskegon Holiday Inn said Santorum's message of religious and social conservatism was more in line with their values. Santorum planned later appearances Monday at tiny Hope College in Holland before speaking to GOP activists at a dinner in Grand Rapids.
"I see Mitt Romney as more of a politician who has flip-flopped on some issues," said Hal Sisson, a 57-year-old media consultant from nearby Norton Shores who, like Santorum, has seven children. "Rick Santorum has repeatedly been very conservative and has always stuck by his principles."
Back in September, Romney easily won just over 50 percent in a straw vote among nearly 700 GOP activists gathered on Michigan's historic Mackinac Island, compared to Santorum's seventh-place finish with 3.4 percent. Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, looked especially strong in a Nov. 9 GOP presidential debate in Michigan where Santorum wasn't much of a factor. But Santorum since has gained significant ground on Romney.
A recent poll of 500 likely Michigan GOP primary voters by Glengariff Group Inc., conducted after Santorum swept contests in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri, showed 34 percent backing the former Pennsylvania senator while 30 percent were behind Romney, within the 4.4 percent margin of error.
Romney has sensed the threat and has stepped up his attacks on the former senator, hitting him as a big-spending Washington insider. Romney planned to campaign in Michigan on Tuesday. His wife, Ann, also a native, campaigned in the state Monday and was making a pair of appearances Tuesday.
Romney is counting on his fatter campaign bank account and superior campaign organization to edge Santorum aside in the week left before Michigan votes. He has the backing of most of the state's GOP leaders, including Gov. Rick Snyder. In the state's most prosperous county — Oakland, just northwest of Detroit — county Executive L. Brooks Patterson predicted Romney's business expertise and his longtime ties to Michigan will pull voters in.
"Romney is a known quantity to us," Patterson said. "The people who know him and get to understand his positions and get to understand what he's capable of doing will flock to his side."
Although Santorum didn't mention Romney in his speech or the question-and-answer period that followed, he clearly echoed what many in the crowd thought of his opponent.
"I don't change like a well-oiled weather vane," Santorum said. "You may not agree with me, but you know where I'm going to stand."
Part of Romney's problem in Michigan is he seems to be struggling to reconnect with voters who backed the Detroit native four years ago, when he first ran for president, after promising to save jobs in the beleaguered auto industry as then-rival John McCain warned that lost auto jobs would never return.
Now Romney seems to be on the opposite side, opposing the federal bailout of General Motors and Chrysler. Fewer voters remember his father, George, who ran American Motors Co. before serving three terms as Michigan governor in the 1960s. And while Romney was seen four years ago as the conservative alternative to McCain, Santorum is the one many Michigan Republicans say they'll back in the state's presidential primary a week from Tuesday.
"I was a non-supporter of anybody until he came on the scene," Jody Kuhn, a 74-year-old retired community college staffer from Muskegon, said of Santorum. Kuhn said she likes his conservative views.
Not everyone thinks Santorum can go the distance, however.
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Clarkston resident Rick Sutkiewicz said recently that he's backing Romney because he stands a better chance of beating President Barack Obama.
"Not that I like Romney best as a candidate," the 45-year-old said while eating dinner in Auburn Hills, home to Chrysler's headquarters and Sutkiewicz's heating and air conditioning business. Sutkiewicz said he prefers Santorum but worries he has too many issues that can be exploited by opponents.
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