Santorum's Social Issues Resonate With Mich. Voters

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Listen to the Quinn Klinefelter on Morning Edition

Polling reveals the Republican presidential contest in Michigan is tightening dramatically. One of the keys to success in next Tuesday's primary is appealing to blue-collar Republican voters.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And leading up to that election, we're hearing lots of speeches by the presidential candidates highlighting jobs and the economy. That's especially true for the Republican hopefuls campaigning now in Michigan.

Social issues do still count with some, as WDET's Quinn Klinefelter found when he talked to voters outside Detroit.

QUINN KLINEFELTER, BYLINE: Polling reveals the Republican presidential contest in Michigan is tightening dramatically. Mitt Romney has cut deeply into the substantial lead Rick Santorum held earlier this month.

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KLINEFELTER: But Santorum's social agenda is resonating with people in Michigan like student Chris Sauders, standing near a gas station in working-class Roseville.

CHRIS SAUDERS: He seems more family values and I think we've kind of lost that. Everything is just so money detailed and oriented. I believe family should come first.

KLINEFELTER: Romney's from Michigan. Does it matter that he's a native son?

SAUDERS: Not to me, it doesn't. I really want someone who's going to do what's best for the country as a whole, not where they're from.

KLINEFELTER: Michigan's economy still hinges on the auto industry. But recent surveys find only about a third of likely Republican voters care that both Romney and Santorum opposed federal bailouts for the industry.

Sliding into a nearby pickup truck, Brian Hallema says the economy should be issue number one for any candidate in both Michigan and the nation. Hallema says he's not sure which GOP presidential contender he'll support. But he builds signs for a living, and he says the economic signs in the state have not been good for far too long.

BRIAN HALLEMA: It seems like a lot of people that are working are still poor. You know, something needs to done with that. I don't know what to do about that. I'm overdrafting my account just to get gas to get to and from work.

KLINEFELTER: Retiree Marty Beary says she simply wants to throw all the rascals out in the country and in this heavily unionized state and start anew.

MARTY BEARY: We need a change. I don't think that Obama's any good and I don't think that Mitt Romney is any good. It's about time the people in Michigan - I don't care if they are union people - it's about time they woke up and started voting Republican.

KLINEFELTER: Down the road, where Jeff Lawson runs the small Triangle printing company, numerous stores remain vacant. Lawson says he wants a change too and trusts Romney's business acumen to deliver it. Others, he says, are too focused on social conservatism, but he likes Romney's economic plan.

JEFF LAWSON: Well, less taxes would help me. More businesses around here would certainly help a lot that have been driven out of business over the last couple of years. My customer base is about half of what it was three or four years ago. And of all those customers, they order about half of what they used to order.

KLINEFELTER: About 10 miles away, customers order food at the City Kitchen in the affluent Detroit suburb of Gross Pointe. Laid-off schoolteacher John Bonar is waiting tables, but he says it isn't economic concerns that make him lean toward Santorum; it's the kind of values he wants to see in the White House.

JOHN BONAR: Reason being, I believe he's more in line with my value system and he definitely, I believe, has a better record for pro-life. You know, Mitt's kind of flip-flopped on that issue.

KLINEFELTER: Still, polls this week show Romney drawing nearly even with Santorum. The results come as Romney and his superPAC, Restore Our Future, are flooding the airwaves with new advertising in Michigan, painting Santorum as a big-spending Washington insider. But Romney's campaign is outspending Santorum by a roughly three-to-one margin. It's a testament to the stakes involved in Michigan, where Romney won in 2008. This time he must convince the rank and file he not only has a strong economic plan but is just as conservative as Santorum. For NPR News, I'm Quinn Klinefelter in Detroit.

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