February 29, 2012 at 1:00 am

Romney's hard-fought Michigan victory reveals obstacles ahead

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his wife, Ann, greet supporters Tuesday night at the Suburban Collection Showplace in Novi. (Charles V. Tines / The Detroit News)

Mitt Romney, son of the former three-term governor, may have quashed a surprising threat Tuesday in Michigan from Rick Santorum, but the hard-fought battle in a state he was expected to win handily signals a long, bruising road to the GOP nomination.

Romney had to spend more time and money in Michigan to win the popular vote while losing among the west Michigan districts — conservative pockets he captured four years earlier. His struggles to unite more conservative voters still loom large for Romney heading in the 10 Super Tuesday contests next week.

Romney crushed Santorum in Metro Detroit, picking up nearly 50,000 more votes in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties. But Santorum beat Romney by 18,000 in the other 80 counties, scoring double-digit wins in more than 20 counties, revealing the division within the party between its moderates in southeast Michigan and the more conservative Republicans in west and north Michigan.

For Santorum, his narrative heading into the Super Tuesday states is that he's the candidate conservatives need to rally around because: "I have now become the true conservative alternative to Mitt Romney," said Steve Mitchell, president of Mitchell Research & Communications Inc. in East Lansing. "He's the one conservatives in Super Tuesday states ought to be supporting if they truly want an anybody-but-Romney candidate."

The race heads to Washington state on Saturday and then to the 10 Super Tuesday states — Georgia, Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia, Oklahoma, Massachusetts, Idaho, North Dakota, Alaska and Vermont. Romney is not favored to do well in the South, where there's a higher proportion of evangelical Christian voters. But the showdown with Santorum will continue on the next big challenge for Romney, the swing state of Ohio, another heavily manufacturing state.

Santorum already was campaigning in Ohio on Tuesday and Romney will head south Wednesday. But Romney won't have a full two weeks to attack his chief competitor in state with more media markets than Michigan and no home field advantage.

Michigan proved a brutal battleground between the state's native who went on to become a multimillionaire businessman and Massachusetts governor against a fiery former Pennsylvania senator who lost badly for his bid for a third term in 2006 but emerged here with a loud rallying cry for frustrated conservatives.

Romney fended off a challenger who ignited excitement among tea party and social conservatives despite being far less organized, less funded and without a legendary family name.

The win was critical for Romney, who faced tough questions on the strength of his White House campaign. He'll push forward to Super Tuesday with the most delegates, momentum and with front-runner crown, once again.

"He's dodged the bullet and he hasn't lost in his home state," said Bill Ballenger, editor of Inside of Michigan politics. The win won't quiet his critics, but they'll say "let him live another week."

Michigan put Romney's campaign resources to the test. Romney and his super PAC flooded airwaves, netted the state's top Republicans and even courted Detroit rock legend Kid Rock to cap his campaign tour with a live performance. After Santorum surged in the polls after surprise wins earlier this month in Missouri, Colorado and Minnesota, he sought to plant his flag and marched through the state revving support with a manufacturing revival message and passionate talk of religious freedom and family values.

Romney sought to stick to an economic message and unveiled a tax cut plan and reforms to Medicare and Social Security. He attacked Santorum as a Washington insider, big spender and favoring the Republican "team" instead of the American people.

Santorum's loss still helps him raise his profile, said Stu Sandler, a GOP consultant. He got into a smart fight with the president over cultural and religious issues. But if he threw all of his resources into Michigan, Sandler wonders whether he's positioned for the slugfest of the Super Tuesday contests against Romney. "Did he throw his best shot and miss?"

Questions remained why Romney faced such a tough fight in a state where he had such built in advantages.

Since voting began last month in Iowa, there's been a segment of the heart of the Republican Party electorate resistant to Romney. Michigan was the closest to a one-on-one match yet in the process, since Gingrich hasn't campaigned here and Ron Paul came late, Ballenger said.

"The only person seen as the anti-Romney is Rick Santorum," Ballenger said.

The issue isn't what has Romney done wrong, Ballenger said, it's that voters continue to be motivated by someone who is not Romney. Though Gingrich placed a distant fourth, combined with Santorum, there's still a solid anti-Romney majority.

Michigan has an anti-establishment streak in primary elections that also worked in Santorum's favor, said Greg McNeilly, a Republican strategist. He points to the 2000 election when President George W. Bush had the support of the establishment and especially Gov. John Engler, who famously said Michigan would be a firewall for Bush. Instead, Sen. John McCain of Arizona won — with, some argue, help from Democrats and independents.

Fast forward to 2008. McCain was the choice of the establishment and Romney won the state. This year, Romney has the support of just about every top Republican in the state, including Gov. Rick Snyder, yet was "fighting for his life here," McNeilly said.

The Santorum surge, anti-Romney sentiment and Michigan's independent streak combined brought the chaotic Republican primary to a decisive peak in Michigan.

Santorum's economic message became muddled when he talked of Satan, getting "sick" over John F. Kennedy's separation of church and state speech and personal views against contraception.

Meantime, Romney struggled to connect with voters with remarks over his wife driving "a couple of Cadillacs" and saying he has great friends who are team owners when asked if he's a NASCAR fan.

To succeed here, Romney rolled out an impressive organization in the state, touted his Michigan roots and dispatched his wife Ann Romney on her most rigorous solo schedule yet to help humanize her husband. His campaign and super PAC regularly went on the airwaves attack. Santorum tried to keep pace with ads of his own — one even depicting a Romney lookalike with a mudslinging gun.

The battle now heads to neighboring Ohio which has similar voter profile as Michigan.

If Michigan is any indication, the mud will keep on slinging.

mschultz@detnews.com

(313) 222-2310

Rick Santorum speaks to the crowd at the Amway Grand Hotel in Grand Rapids ... (Dale G. Young / Detroit News)