Michigan Primary to Test Santorum as Romney Challenger

Feb. 28 (Bloomberg) -- Al Hunt, executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News and a Bloomberg View columnist, talks about the outlook for the Michigan and Arizona primarys. Hunt speaks on Bloomberg Television's "InBusiness With Margaret Brennan." (Al Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. Source: Bloomberg)

Mitt Romney said Rick Santorum sought to “kidnap” the Republican presidential nomination process by encouraging Democrats to vote in today’s Michigan primary.

Romney is trying to avoid the embarrassment of losing in the state where he was born and his father was a popular three- term governor. Santorum is attempting to prove he’s a legitimate front-runner who can win in bigger states and not just generate a short-lived surge in an unsettled campaign.

With some polls open in the state until 9 p.m. Eastern time, Santorum had 40 percent of the vote and Romney 39 percent, with 10 percent of precincts reporting, according to the Associated Press. Running third was U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas with 11 percent, followed by former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich with 7 percent.

Voting in Arizona, site of the day’s other primary, also ends at 9 p.m. Eastern time. Romney is favored to win that contest.

Santorum’s campaign made automated phone calls to Michigan (BEESMI) Democrats to urge them to vote for their candidate, citing Romney’s opposition to the $82 billion federal automotive bailout, which Santorum also opposed.

‘Dirty Tricks’

Romney earlier today told reporters the calls are the “dirty tricks of a desperate campaign.”

Photographer: Gerald Herbert/AP

Mitt Romney at a campaign rally at the Royal Oak Theater in on Feb. 27, 2012 in Michigan. Close

Mitt Romney at a campaign rally at the Royal Oak Theater in on Feb. 27, 2012 in Michigan.

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Photographer: Gerald Herbert/AP

Mitt Romney at a campaign rally at the Royal Oak Theater in on Feb. 27, 2012 in Michigan.

“Republicans have to recognize there’s a real effort to kidnap our primary process,” Romney said in Livonia, Michigan.

Romney, 64, a former Massachusetts governor, said he believes that the economy will ultimately trump other issues as the most important for voters, even as he struggles to win over the fiscal and social conservative base of his party amid a challenge from Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator.

“It’s very easy to excite the base with incendiary comments and we’ve seen throughout the campaign if you’re willing to say really outrageous things that are really accusative and attacking President Obama that you’re going to jump up in the polls,” Romney said. “I’m not willing to light my hair on fire to try and get support. I am who I am.”

‘Economic Lightweight’

Romney, a former private equity executive who acknowledged today that he’s made some “mistakes” in his campaign messaging, said Santorum is “an economic lightweight” in terms of understanding how to create more jobs.

“The reason that I think people will find him hard to elect in a general election, if he were to become our nominee, is that he doesn’t have the very attribute and skill that is most in demand on the part of the American people right now,” he said.

In response, Santorum, 53, told reporters today in Ohio --a state that will hold a primary next week -- that he’s offering a “conservative message” that will appeal to Republicans.

“He’s the one out there appealing to moderates to vote for him. I’m not,” he said. “I’m appealing to conservatives to vote for me.”

Romney has cited an effort to weaken the opposition as an explanation for why he voted for former Senator Paul Tsongas, a Democrat, in that party’s 1992 presidential primary.

“When there was no real contest in the Republican primary, I’d vote in the Democrat primary, vote for the person who I thought would be the weakest opponent for the Republican,” he said during a 2007 interview with ABC News.

At his news conference, Romney drew a distinction between his vote 20 years ago and a campaign strategy.

“It’s very different being a candidate for president, buying ads, and telling Democrats to go, to go mess into a Republican primary and to vote against me,” he said.

Super Tuesday

Today’s results could determine who has the momentum before Super Tuesday on March 6, when 11 states will hold contests with more than 400 of the 1,144 delegates needed to win the Republican nomination at stake.

Michigan will award 30 delegates based on how the candidates do in each of the state’s congressional districts, while the winner in Arizona will get all 29 delegates. That’s one reason Santorum has concentrated on Michigan, and it may mean that the overall vote-total winner in the state won’t necessarily collect the most convention delegates.

Neither Gingrich nor Paul competed aggressively in Michigan, concentrating instead on states voting next month.

Gingrich Help

Gingrich, who campaigned in Georgia today, may get a boost from Sheldon Adelson, chairman of the Las Vegas Sands Corp. (LVS), who is planning to give a fresh infusion of cash to a political action committee backing the former U.S. House speaker, according to a person close to the organization who wasn’t authorized to publicly discuss its finances.

The undisclosed amount will fund pro-Gingrich television ads to run in seven states that hold contests in early March, the person said.

The group, Winning Our Future, had $2.4 million as February started, according to Federal Election Commission reports. Almost all of its $11 million in donations in January came from Adelson and his wife. Data compiled by Bloomberg show he is among the top 20 wealthiest people in the world.

Winning Our Future uploaded several versions of two new television ads to its YouTube channel.

Gasoline Issue

One ad, titled “It’s Time to Choose Newt,” opens with a man saying, “Mitt Romney” and sighing loudly. It uses a person-on-the-street format. A woman says, “Not everyone in Washington likes Newt,” and another chimes in, “but maybe that’s a good thing. He got things done.” Later, echoing Gingrich’s gas-price theme in recent days on the campaign trail, a woman says “We’re looking at $5 or $6 gas -- Romney’s not the type to pump his own gas.”

A 30-second version of the ad began airing this morning in Atlanta, according to New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG, a company that tracks advertising. The super-PAC has plans to air ads in several Super Tuesday states, including Georgia.

Spending in Michigan on television commercials by Romney’s campaign and a political action committee backing him has outpaced expenditures on behalf of Santorum by a ratio of about 3-to-2, according to data from New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG, a company that tracks advertising.

The Romney campaign and Restore Our Future spent $3.12 million to air ads 6,229 times on Michigan broadcast television stations through Feb. 27, CMAG reported. Santorum and the Red White and Blue Fund, a PAC supporting him, spent $2.15 million to air ads 5,337 times.

To contact the reporters on this story: John McCormick in Southfield, Michigan at jmccormick16@bloomberg.net; Lisa Lerer in Livonia, Michigan at llerer@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeanne Cummings at jcummings21@bloomberg.net

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