Michigan Brakes For Santorum

Michigan holds its presidential primary in just 10 days, and the contest there is turning out to be closer than expected. Mitt Romney grew up in Michigan, where his father, George Romney, ran a car company before becoming governor. Rick Santorum has come on strong, however, and is even ahead in several polls. NPR's Don Gonyea joins host Scott Simon to talk about the state of play in Michigan.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

That Michigan primary is just in 10 days and the contest there is turning to be closer than expected. Mitt Romney grew up in Michigan. His father, George Romney, ran a car company there. He was the governor. But Santorum has come on strong and even ahead in current polls. We're joined now by another son of Michigan, NPR's Don Gonyea, live in our studio, who spent the week in his home state. Thanks very much for being with us, Don.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: My pleasure. Good to be here.

SIMON: What's the latest?

GONYEA: We all look at that polling site, Real Clear Politics, a political site, and they compile polls. And let me just start with some numbers. Mitt Romney has been ahead forever in Michigan. He's been ahead since he beat John McCain there four years ago in Michigan. And on Valentine's Day this year - how's this for a Valentine's Day gift? That's when the polling average put Rick Santorum ahead. And look at these numbers - Inside Michigan Politics poll: Santorum up by 10; Rasmussen poll: Santorum by three; Detroit News: Santorum by four; Mitchell/Rosetta Stone: Santorum by nine. So, what has been happening around the country is happening in Mitt Romney's own home state.

SIMON: And help us understand this. I mean, this is a state where the name Romney is still uttered with a lot of reverence.

GONYEA: Certainly. George Romney, a much beloved governor, auto executive. The catch is he left office in 1968 after his unsuccessful run for the presidency. He had then joined the Nixon administration. So, that is a long time ago. If you're in your 40s, maybe even if in your 50s, for some people that name doesn't mean a lot. But I'll tell you, when this started - I don't make predictions in this business just 'cause it's not a good place to be for a reporter...

SIMON: It's not a good year to make predictions either.

GONYEA: This is not a good year, but if there was one I would have made at the start of the year, it would have been that, you know, Michigan was a lock for Mitt Romney, and here we are with the very real possibility - no prediction - but it's not looking good. He could lose the state.

SIMON: Help us understand the complication of the auto industry bailout as an issue and, if I might refer to this as a complication, the recent success of the auto industry. I mean, George Romney was the guy who rescued the Rambler, must be said, without federal government support, Mitt Romney, and for that matter Rick Santorum, both were opposed to that, weren't they?

GONYEA: They both opposed the federal money that helped General Motors and Chrysler. Now, this week General Motors announced its biggest annual profit ever - $7.6 billion. So, that's the backdrop this week. And you have Rick Santorum that very day going to the Economic Club of Detroit and saying I opposed it. It would have been tough. Maybe they wouldn't look like they look today, but they might be doing even better than they're doing today. It's just a bad thing. And then he would up the ante by saying, and by the way, I oppose TARP and the bank bailout as well. Mitt Romney opposed the auto bailout but did not oppose the Wall Street bailout. Santorum sees an opening there and for him it is a pitch to Tea Party votes. Now, when he said that to the august Economic Club of Detroit the room was quiet. When he says it at rallies where there a lot of Tea Party folks, people cheer. Mitt Romney kind of ties himself into a pretzel. He says I was opposed to it but I wouldn't have let them fail. He says it was the right thing. They could have gone through managed bankruptcy without government help. They did go through managed bankruptcy after they got the help. He says his way they would be doing just as well. But, of course, we don't know that.

SIMON: As we began by noting, there are still 10 until actual votes are cast. Can Mitt Romney just throw a whole lot of money at the problem?

GONYEA: He will throw a whole lot of money at the problem. But he'll also throw organization at the problem. He has every endorsement you would expect, every endorsement you would want, the governor is working for him. He has people not in every county but in every precinct. So, they are counting on the Romney name meaning something. And they think it may just be kind of the afterglow of Santorum's three wins last week. But we'll see, and right now they're behind.

SIMON: NPR's Don Gonyea. Always a pleasure to have you here. Thanks.

GONYEA: Thank you.

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