New Republic: In Michigan With The Santorum Revival

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Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum greets people during a campaign stop  on Feb. 26, 2012 in Davison, Michigan. Michigan residents will go to the polls on Feb. 28 to vote for their choice in the Republican presidential race. i i

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum greets people during a campaign stop on Feb. 26, 2012 in Davison, Michigan. Michigan residents will go to the polls on Feb. 28 to vote for their choice in the Republican presidential race. Joe Raedle/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum greets people during a campaign stop  on Feb. 26, 2012 in Davison, Michigan. Michigan residents will go to the polls on Feb. 28 to vote for their choice in the Republican presidential race.

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum greets people during a campaign stop on Feb. 26, 2012 in Davison, Michigan. Michigan residents will go to the polls on Feb. 28 to vote for their choice in the Republican presidential race.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Jonathan Cohn is a senior editor at The New Republic.

Mitt Romney is the candidate from Michigan. But on Sunday night, Rick Santorum was the one making a personal connection here. And it wasn't quite the one that I expected.

Santorum was speaking at a banquet hall, just a few miles east of Flint. About 300 people attended, filling the floor and a seating deck above. A pair of matching staircases led up to the deck, lending the hall the appearance of a church — which was altogether appropriate, given what was transpiring inside. Santorum was preaching to the faithful. And the faithful were responding.

When Santorum railed against "Obamacare" and the government "curbing your economic liberty, forcing you to do what you don't want to do," the crowd let out a hearty "boooooo." When he attacked "Washington bureaucrats" and "academic elitists" for telling land-owners what's good for the environment, somebody in the audience shouted out "socialism." Other attacks on government power provoked spontaneous outbursts of "no thank you" and "we want freedom."

I don't want to overstate things: I've seen larger and more enthusiastic crowds on many occasions. But Santorum clearly made an impression. I've attended maybe a half-dozen Romney events in Michigan, during this campaign cycle and the previous one. I don't recall him ever getting a response like this.

One reason is the obvious one: Santorum is simply better at communicating with average voters. He may not have an appreciation for Michigan's lakes or know the size of its trees. His father may not have served as governor or run a car company. But his grandfather did work briefly for a Detroit automaker before moving to Pennsylvania, where he worked as a coal-miner. That allows Santorum to talk about his life in a way that typical voters can understand — and appreciate. When Santorum mentioned that his father stayed on the job until he was 72, one audience member let out a very audible "whoa."

Still, Santorum was connecting with his audience for another reason. The middle of Santorum's speech was a riff about community — and the importance of getting past more materialistic needs. He reminded his audience that previous generations of Americans didn't have so many gadgets or creature comforts: "They had nothing compared to what we have today." But, Santorum went on to say, they had strong communities and neighborhoods. "They were rich in social capital, not rich in money."

After the speech, a pair of Romney campaign advisers trailing Santorum pulled me aside, to point out that Santorum had said almost nothing about jobs. I think they were right. (I actually missed the first five minutes so I can't be sure.) But I don't think that was accidental. Santorum's pitch isn't really about economic opportunity. It's about a way of life — a way of life that he believes is disappearing. Audiences like these seem to agree.

And maybe they have a point. You don't have to endorse Santorum's retrograde ideas about the family in order to believe that rising out-of-wedlock birth is a bad thing. You don't have to indulge conservative nostalgia for the 1950s, an era when the United States systematically disenfranchised and segregated African-Americans, to think that social capital may be in decline.

But if Santorum has identified some real problems, is he also proposing real solutions? As I listened to Santorum vow and end to "Obama regulations," I wondered if that included efforts to bolster family and medical leave, so that new parents could stay home with their children. As I heard him promise to tame entitlements, I wondered how dismantling Medicare and Medicaid would make life easier for families with sick and elderly relatives.

Santorum believes that radically downsizing the government will strengthen communities and families. I say it's more likely to weaken them.

Not that my opinion matters, at least for the moment. The primary on Tuesday is a Republican one and, like Santorum, most voters going to the polls that day will see government as a hindrance, rather than a help. But it's unclear whether that will produce enough votes for Santorum to win.

Back home tonight, as I watched the late Detroit news broadcast, I saw two political commercials. Both were attacking Santorum. That's how many voters are learning about Santorum: through negative advertising on television. Not coincidentally, his poll numbers in the state are slipping.

Santorum is very effective in person, yes. But few Michiganders will ever see him that way.

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