Paul Sancya, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Republican rivals Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum collided Tuesday in a rancorous Michigan presidential primary that tested the clout of the GOP establishment against conservative and tea party rebels as well as the candidates themselves.
Arizona Republicans voted in the second primary of the night, and Romney was favored by far in that race that drew less attention.
Two other candidates in the race for the GOP nomination, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul, made little effort in either Michigan or Arizona, pointing instead to next week's 10-state collection of Super Tuesday primaries and caucuses.
As Romney's home state, Michigan held outsized importance in the campaign to pick a Republican presidential candidate, a place where he won the primary in 2008 and could ill afford to lose this year.
Not even the opening of polls around the state brought an end to the squabbling. Romney accused Santorum of trying to hijack a victory by courting Democratic votes through automated telephone calls and suggested his rival was appealing to Michigan conservatives by making the kind of "incendiary" statements he would not.
"I'm not willing to light my hair on fire to try and get support," Romney said. "I am what I am."
Santorum brushed aside the allegations of hijacking, saying Romney had appealed for support from independents in earlier states.
"We're going to get voters that we need to be able to win this election. And we're going to do that here in Michigan today," Santorum said, referring to blue collar voters with a history of swinging between the parties.
If nothing else, the unexpected clash on Romney's home field dramatized that two months into the campaign season — after nearly a dozen primaries and caucuses — the GOP race to pick an opponent for President Barack Obama was as unsettled as the day it began.
The lengthening GOP nomination struggle has coincided with a rise in Obama's prospects for a new term. A survey released during the day showed consumer confidence at the highest level in a year, and other polls show an increase in voters saying they believe the country is on the right track.
Unopposed for renomination, Obama timed a campaign-style appearance before United Auto Workers Union members in Washington for the same day as the Michigan primary. Attacking Republicans, he said assertions that union members profited from a taxpayer-paid rescue of the auto industry in 2008 are a "load of you know what."
All of the Republicans running for the White House opposed the bailout, but even in the party's Michigan primary a survey of voters leaving polling places showed about four in ten supported it.
A plurality of Republican voters in both Michigan and Arizona said the most important factor to them was that a candidate be able to beat Obama in November.
About one in four Michigan primary voters said they most wanted a candidate with the right experience, and the same percentage cited a strong moral character as most important. Santorum was preferred among both groups.
The polls surveyed both Election Day and absentee or early voters. Interviews were conducted at 30 polling places in each state. Early results from Arizona's poll included interviews with 1,617 voters, including 601 absentee or early voters interviewed by phone. In Michigan it was 1,631 interviews including 412 absentee or early voters interviewed by telephone. The margin of sampling error for both polls was plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Michigan loomed as a key test for Romney as he struggled to reclaim his early standing as front-runner in the race. The first of the industrial battleground states to vote in the nominating campaign, it is also the place where the former Massachusetts governor was born and where he won a primary when he first ran for the party nomination four years ago.
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