MICHIGAN CAGE MATCH
Mitt "The Raider" Romney vs. "Prayerful" Rick Santorum vs. Ron " The Gold Standard" Paul vs. "Grandiose" Newt Gingrich
But could the outcome here help steer Republicans to a brokered election?
Published: February 22, 2012
Paul stands out from the rest of the GOP pack, in part, because he eschews the sort of social conservatism being touted by his Republican rivals, especially Santorum, who is making his Christianity a key issue.
Appearing on CNN, Paul accused Santorum of just "pretending he's a conservative," citing what he called the former senator's "atrocious voting record" while in Congress. (Not that even many Republicans brandishing conservative credentials can match Paul's hard Libertarian stances.)
In Paul's view, Republican's will fail in their attempt to take back the White House if they run a campaign that focuses on social issues.
Paul lamented the fact that, while he wants to draw attention to the threats being posed to "civil liberties, the constant wars going on" and the mounting national debt, "they're worried about birth control."
Add it all up and what you have is a Republican Party where the candidates are standing in a circle, taking aim at each other.
And the millions of dollars being spent attacking each other is money not being used to bring down Obama.
That, says Michigan political analyst Bill Ballenger, can only be good news for the president. He pointed to a recent cover of the New Yorker magazine that ran before the Super Bowl. The illustration shows Obama, beer in hand and smiling broadly as he watches TV. Only instead of the Giants and Patriots battling it out, Romney is tackling Gingrich, who is punching Mitt in the face.
"That pretty much sums things up," said Ballenger, who publishes the Inside Michigan Politics newsletter.
Looking ahead to November, with Michigan expected to be a crucial "swing state" that will help determine who takes the White House, one issue will hang over the heads of both Romney and Santorum: the government action taken to help keep both General Motors and Chrysler solvent.
In 2008, as the economy was melting down and American automakers were facing a tide of red ink, a bailout plan that began under President George Bush was being supported by President-elect Obama.
Romney wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times that appeared under the headline "Let Detroit go bankrupt." He argued that the government shouldn't become involved in helping save the industry. Much better, he argued, to let bankruptcy play out unimpeded by Washington's meddling.
At the time, editors at the Economist magazine agreed. Since then, while Romney has tried to defend his position, the magazine has had the good graces to admit it was mistaken.
For his part, Santorum has said that he opposed both the bailout of the auto industry and the financial sector.
Appearing before the Detroit Economic Club last week, Santorum, as reported by the New York Times, said:
"Governor Romney supported the bailout of Wall Street and decided not to support the bailout of Detroit. My feeling was that we should not support — the government should not be involved in bailouts, period. I think that's a much more consistent position."
Given that General Motors has just announced that it posted its best year ever in 2011, raking in a record $7.6 billion in profit, it is fair to wonder how their opposition to the bailout will play with Michigan voters as a whole if either Romney or Santorum is heading the GOP's ticket in November.
According to two of the experts we talked with, however, the key word there may be if.
Although it remains unlikely, there is one scenario that could take what has already been a topsy-turvy campaign and turn it into something that hasn't been seen for decades: a brokered convention.
It would work like this:
Playing David to Romney's Goliath, Santorum focuses his limited resources on Michigan, where favorite-son Romney was long expected to win.
But, with the support of conservative Christians — a definite political force, especially in the western part of the state where the Dutch Reformed Church is a dominant factor — and blue-collar Republicans who identify more with Santorum's working-class roots than with Romney's privileged upbringing, Santorum is able to win Michigan.
At this point, however, the situation is anything but stable. One month ago, polls showed Romney holding a significant lead over his closest competitor here — Gingrich.
Then came Santorum's three-state sweep and a surge in nationwide polls. By mid-February, one poll showed him with a commanding 15-point lead over Romney. As of the beginning of this week, after heavy airing of ads attacking Santorum, that lead had dwindled to just 4 points.
Political observers we interviewed all agree a loss here would leave Romney badly damaged. If Romney were to lose Michigan, a state where his roots run deep, the perception that he lacks what it takes to wrap up the nomination would be magnified many times over.
Money would begin to pour into the Santorum campaign, and he'd have great momentum going into Super Tuesday contests on March 6, experts predict.
Romney, however, with a well-funded national organization long in place, and a vast personal fortune that can keep his coffers liquid even if outside contributions begin to dry up, could remain at least competitive.
Gingrich, who retains support in several of the Super Tuesday states, might also remain in the race. And Ron Paul, who lacks the money of a Romney but generates fierce loyalty among his supporters, could keep pressing on, collecting enough delegates to play the role of spoiler.
If such a scenario materialized, it's possible none of the current field of candidates would be able to capture the 1,144 delegates needed to have the nomination sewn up by the time the GOP national convention is held in August.
And if that were to happen, all bets would be off.
The choices would be Gingrich, with his ethics problems, lobbyist ties and marital infidelities. Paul, who would bring troops home from around the world, end the war on drugs, shut down much of the federal government and return America to the gold standard. Then there's Santorum, whose fundamentalist religious views may appeal to Christian conservatives in the GOP but run the risk of driving away moderate voters in the general election.
As for Romney, if he so lacks the ability to connect with voters on an emotional level, and can't inspire passionate support in them, even in a state where he grew up and the family name is highly respected, how could he be expected to hold his own against a campaigner as skilled as Obama?
If that's the situation, then a dark horse candidate — unbruised by the bare-knuckle primary fight — could be waiting in the wings to take the nomination.
Among those being mentioned for this role are former Florida governor Jeb Bush, the son of one president and the brother of another. Others possibilities include New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
Although any one of them would have only two months to raise money, that's less of an issue than it was in the past because of the ability of Super PACs to pour unlimited amounts off money into a campaign.
In theory, it might be the best chance Republicans have of regaining the Oval Office.
Some, such as former Michigan GOP Chairman Saul Anuzis, say they can't imagine things playing out this way.
"I think it is very far-fetched," Anuzis, who endorsed Romney last year, told us in an e-mail. "The likelihood is that the nomination will be wrapped up by late April given the schedule."
Anuzis agreed that a loss in Michigan would be a "big hit for Romney, but not devastating." And the idea that some candidate who hadn't proved his worth by enduring the primary process would be recruited, he said, "is inconceivable."
"I think those who want to derail Romney are doing their best to spin a scenario that might work," he observed. "The reality is that no one is in the position to step in, and this primary battle is not unlike many in the past."
Including the 2008 Republican race.
"Folks forget McCain lost some 19-20 states before locking up the primary. There is a long way to go and Romney is one of the few in the position to do so."
Several political science professors interviewed for this story agreed that the possibility of a brokered convention is at best remote.
"Anything can happen," said Matt Grossman of Michigan State University. "But the prospect of a brokered convention seems quite unlikely."
He said it is much more probable that, as the primary process continues to unfold, Republicans will come together and rally around one of the existing candidates.
Grossman pointed out that polling suggests that, even if he's not their first choice, Romney is a candidate broad swaths of the GOP electorate can support.
Victoria Mantzopoulos, chair of the political science and economic departments at the University of Detroit Mercy, also thinks that we are highly unlikely to see a brokered convention.
"I don't believe the Republican Party will allow that to happen," she said. For one thing, she observed, unless the candidate being recruited enjoyed broad-based and enthusiastic support, the party would run the risk of leaving voters involved in the primary feeling "betrayed."
"It would have to be someone who is overwhelmingly popular," she said. "But I really can't imagine that scenario."
On the other hand, Craig Ruff, a senior policy analyst at Public Sector Consultants in Lansing, agrees with Ballenger that, if Romney can't gain the support of a majority of Michigan Republicans, then the result could be "the wet dream of every journalist and political observer — a wide-open brokered convention."
He points out that, in the past, Republican delegates were usually apportioned on a winner-take-all basis. This year, though, especially in the primaries being held before April, delegates are assigned on a proportional basis. Doing so helps keep any one candidate from locking up the nomination too early in the process, and gives later states a chance to still have a say in who the candidate will be, and keeps voters engaged.
The way Ruff sees it, he wouldn't be surprised if GOP power brokers were already contemplating a way to manipulate the flow of money to candidates to help ensure there's a brokered convention in order to field a candidate "untainted by this GOP nominating process."
"I don't think that is far-fetched at all," he said.
If nothing else, just the fact that the talk of a brokered convention is being raised at all, is significant.
One month ago, Michigan was expected to be a proverbial cakewalk for native son Mitt Romney. Now he's grappling for what could be his political future.
> Email Curt Guyette