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Republicans may also be responding to his substantive differences with Romney. From abortion to gay marriage, Santorum checks nearly every box a social conservative would want and without Romney's many past reversals. A recent shift in the political conversation to social issues like contraception and abortion may be reminding Republicans that they want more than an accomplished businessman in the White House. Many Republicans see Santorum as a genuine conservative and Romney as a moderate technocrat who simply poses as one. And Santorum's emphasis on manufacturing both appeals to blue collar workers and helps remind voters that Romney is no working-class hero.
Those factors have given Santorum a chance to humiliate Romney in a state that should be a fire wall. Romney grew up in Michigan, where his family was political royalty. His father was a famed auto-company executive, served as governor in the 1960s and ran for President. Santorum allies salivate at the prospect of an upset. "That giant sucking sound would be the life coming out of the Romney campaign," says Stuart Roy, an adviser to the Red, White and Blue Fund, a pro-Santorum super PAC. That's not just bluster. Representative Bill Huizenga, a Michigan Republican who backs Romney, said a defeat in his state would be "a huge embarrassment" for Romney.
With expectations running high, however, a Michigan flop could also pop Santorum's bubble. Though he is the toast of the Tea Party right now, Santorum is in some ways the unlikeliest of the anti-Mitts. He spent 16 years in Congress and worked closely with K Street lobbyists. Defending his Senate seat in a purple-to-blue state, he often bucked conservative doctrine, voting for earmarks and spending bills and against a national "right to work" act. (It still didn't save him from an 18-point defeat in 2006.) Until now, Santorum has largely flown under the radar of the Romney campaign's onslaughts, which blew Gingrich out of the sky. Santorum has enjoyed the luxury of introducing himself on his own terms. But that is about to change.
Rust Belt Battle
As the Romney attack machine rumbles to life, Santorum is preparing an offensive of his own. Stuck to the office wall of his top strategist, John Brabender, is a sea of yellow Post-it notes that form a makeshift blueprint for maximizing the campaign's modest resources. In the wake of his Feb. 7 victories, Santorum netted more than $1 million, mostly from small-dollar donors, on each of three consecutive days, with each day's haul more than his total last fall. With a skimpy war chest, winning requires a political version of Moneyball, so Santorum has learned how to hunt delegates at a discount. "I'm willing to concede today that if this race is about who can run the most negative ads, we can all get out now and declare Romney the winner," Brabender says. "Gingrich probably made a tragic mistake when he bet the ranch on Florida and lost. We're not going to make that mistake."