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If Mitt Romney ekes out a win in the Michigan presidential primary Tuesday as the latest polls suggest is likely, it will be a demoralizing finish in a state that should have been a slam dunk for the man who was born and raised there during the auto industry’s glory days in the 1940s and ’50s.

Local political observers cited the Romney campaign’s massive organizational and financial advantage, combined with a healthy dose of Super PAC assistance, for his upswing, as he was trailing in the polls — sometimes by a wide margin — as recently as a few weeks ago.

“This should have been an easy victory for Romney,” said Michael Heaney, a political scientist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “Romney has shown the power of his well-organized campaign, but also has demonstrated really soft support from the Republican grassroots.”

He won a big victory in the state during his 2008 campaign, promising to revitalize the auto industry just months before he wrote an op-ed in The New York Times, “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt,” urging the government not to rescue it. Michigan Republicans mostly share his view, but he is likely to shed some of his supporters from last time around, when he was the conservative alternative to John McCain.

“The bailout issue is more of a general election issue for him,” said former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm. “More significant is how he has tried to cover all sides of it, his painful explanations of his position, his attempt to straddle that issue, the pretzel-like maneuvers he’s had to twist himself into in explaining it.”

Granholm said Romney would do well in the populous southeast part of the state, where traditional economic conservatives dominate Republican politics. But with delegates awarded based on how candidates perform in each congressional district, Rick Santorum could actually win the most delegates even if he loses the popular vote statewide because of strong support in the socially conservative counties in the west.

“You might see Rick Santorum actually winning more congressional districts even though Romney might win the popular vote because of the I-75 [southeast] corridor,” she said.

Whereas the elder Romney was a popular, progressive governor in the 1960s, embracing civil rights and staking out a position of bold centrism in a changing Republican Party, his son has learned to court the conservative movement, albeit awkwardly.

“His father was a beloved governor because he was pragmatic and compassionate and moderate,” said Granholm. “Mitt Romney, while he may have been some of those things while he was governor of Massachusetts, is vying to outflank Rick Santorum on the right, and he is not his father. He has morphed into something his father would not recognize.”

Even if he does win in Michigan, and in Arizona, where he has a healthy lead in the polls and was endorsed by conservative hero and anti-immigration Governor Jan Brewer, victory will have come at a high cost: less time spent preparing for the Super Tuesday primaries.

“Romney should have been able to count on Michigan and divert attention elsewhere,” Heaney said.

The final Public Policy Polling survey of the state showed Romney taking a narrow lead, 39 to 37 percent, with a large number of votes already in the bank thanks to his aggressive early voting operation.

 

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