Santorum, Romney Duke It Out In Michigan

With polls showing Rick Santorum giving Mitt Romney a serious challenge in Michigan — where Romney's father was governor — the GOP race for president looks even more uncertain than it did a few weeks ago. Robert Siegel talks with Mara Liasson about Tuesday's primaries in Michigan and Arizona.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Now to today's Republican presidential primaries. In most Michigan precincts, except parts of the upper peninsula, polls are now closed. And throughout Arizona, voting ends in one hour. While Mitt Romney appears to be well ahead in Arizona, in Michigan he is in a dead heat with Rick Santorum.

And now for more on the Republican presidential contest, I'm joined by NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Hi, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Robert.

SIEGEL: What's the latest from the two campaigns?

LIASSON: Well, what we know is that Mitt Romney is going to speak within the hour. That means he'll talk before all the polls are closed and maybe even before the networks have called the result. He did the same thing in South Carolina. That allows him to not have to really talk about whether he lost or won by a squeaker.

Romney was lowering expectations today. He gave his first press conference in three weeks and he admitted making some mistakes. He said that he wasn't going to set his hair on fire just to win conservative votes. Of course, then he said if he did set his hair on fire, it would be a pretty big fire.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LIASSON: He's got a lot of – big head of hair.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LIASSON: But what's happened in the last couple of days, really, is that the Santorum lead, which had been evaporated by Romney's withering attacks has started to rebound a little bit. Santorum looked like he had gotten some momentum back and the race was back to a dead heat, as opposed to a small Romney lead.

SIEGEL: This was in the daily tracking polls...

LIASSON: Right.

SIEGEL: That people take. Apart from the joke about the flammable hair, Mitt Romney also made some remarks about dirty campaigning on Santorum's part.

LIASSON: Yes. He's very mad about robo-calls. And he said one of the factors tonight, one of the reasons it's hard to predict the results is because Democrats are crossing over to vote in the Republican primary, which they are allowed to do, it's an open primary. And Rick Santorum is encouraging them to do that with robo-calls, automated phone calls, reminding them that Mitt Romney supported the Wall Street bailout but did not support the bailout for the auto industry, which has proved to be a big success and is quite popular in Michigan. Santorum opposed both bailouts but I don't think he's mentioning that in these calls.

And there are some Democrats who want to cross over to make some mischief; to pick the weakest candidate to face President Obama. But there also are some Reagan Democrats, according to Rick Santorum, who Republicans would do well to appeal to. They're going to need them in the fall. And he says that's all he's doing. Romney says he's hijacking the primary. We do know from exit polls that about 10 percent of voters said they're Democrats. Now, that's a very hard thing to poll, especially if they're coming into the Republican Party to do some mischief.

SIEGEL: Mara, what are you looking for in tonight's results?

LIASSON: Well, obviously, who wins. If Santorum wins, it's going to be a huge political earthquake. And I think the Republican establishment will be in a stone cold panic. And it will unmask Romney as being terribly weak. If he ekes it out, ekes out a win over Santorum, I still think there will be a lot of discussion of why it was so hard to win his home state. He hasn't been able to sow it up yet.

But it's possible we'll have a split result. One of these candidates could win the popular vote but the other could get the most delegates because Michigan awards its delegates on a winner-take-all basis by congressional district.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Mara Liasson. And this is NPR News.

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