Gerald Herbert, Associated Press
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney greets supporters at a campaign rally in Rockford, Mich., Monday, Feb. 27, 2012.
ROCKFORD, Mich. — Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said Monday that Rick Santorum is ill-prepared to deal with the nation's economic woes, calling his GOP rival a nice guy who never held a job in the private sector.
A day ahead of the crucial Michigan primary, Romney shifted his line of attack from the cultural issues and conservative rhetoric he used over the weekend and instead insisted that the former Pennsylvania senator doesn't know how to create jobs.
"I understand why jobs go, why they come, I understand what happens to corporate profit, where it goes if the government takes it," Romney told a crowd at the Byrne Electrical warehouse.
Romney plans three stops on Monday in Michigan, the state where he was born and raised and one he is fighting hard to win. He's far ahead in Arizona, which also holds its primary Tuesday.
Santorum has mounted an unexpectedly strong challenge against Romney in Michigan. Polls show a close race, and a loss would be embarrassing to the former Massachusetts governor and could jeopardize his path to victory in what's already become a prolonged fight for the GOP presidential nomination.
Romney seized on Santorum's opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal on Monday.
"I'm glad he recognizes this is going to be a campaign about the economy," Romney said of his rival's op-ed. "It's time for him to really focus on the economy and for you to all say, 'Okay if the economy is going to be the issue we focus on who has the experience to actually get this economy going again?'"
Romney didn't mention Santorum's conservative credentials, as he had in recent days, when he tied Santorum to former Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, who supports abortion rights and switched parties from Republican to Democrat. Instead, the wealthy former Bain Capital chief stuck to his pitch as a private sector businessman.
It's also a contrast from just days ago, when Romney was highlighting his socially conservative credentials, telling a tea party event that he was a "pro-life governor" and a "pro-life candidate."
"I'm the conservative candidate, and what we need in the White House is principled conservative leadership," Romney said Saturday. "And I'll bring it."
Romney has previously assailed Santorum as "not a fiscal conservative" and said he voted to fund Planned Parenthood when he voted for Title X while serving in the Senate.
That was gone from his appearance Monday. "Senator Santorum's a nice guy, but he's never had a job in the private sector," Romney said.
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Romney has three stops planned Monday as his bus rumbles from Grand Rapids back to metropolitan Detroit, where he will spend election night. He held a morning rally in Rockford and plans events in Albion and Royal Oak.
At stake Tuesday are 30 delegates in Michigan and 29 in Arizona. Voting comes ahead of an intense week of campaigning across the country. March 6 is Super Tuesday, when 10 states will hold GOP nominating contests as far apart as Virginia and Alaska. Wyoming also holds county conventions beginning that day. At stake are 419 delegates to the Republican National Convention this summer — more than have been awarded in all the previous contests combined.