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Romney Outflanks Santorum on Unions

The latest of several polls of Michigan Republicans released in the last few days confirms what the others reported: Rick Santorum is leading Mitt Romney in the state where the latter was born and raised. Though the Detroit News poll gives Santorum a four-point edge that was within the margin of error, the survey was one of five polls that all pointed to a Santorum victory in the Feb. 28 Michigan primary. That leaves Romney, who told reporters yesterday that a loss “just won’t happen,” scrambling for an issue with which to counter the rising conservative tide that has lifted Santorum from the second tier of the GOP race to the frontrunner position. His answer appeared to be an unlikely choice for Michigan but one that would, at least on this one point, allow him to outflank Santorum on the right: combating the influence of unions.

Romney came out swinging at organized labor yesterday, taking specific aim at the United Auto Workers. Channeling voter resentment at the role of unions in sending states into near-bankruptcy has been a familiar theme for the GOP around the nation as governors such as Wisconsin’s Scott Walker and New Jersey’s Chris Christie have rallied the GOP base on the issue. Picking up the anti-union banner is a way for Romney to connect with Tea Party voters. It also provides him with a way to bring up Santorum’s record of voting for big government spending packages. But given the outsize influence of union voters in Michigan, it’s an open question as to whether this tactic will help or hurt Romney, especially because Santorum is going all-out to emphasize his working class roots and sympathies.

Romney is gambling that the GOP voter base, even in Michigan, is more likely to view unions negatively. As the Detroit Free Press reported, he went out of his way to take a shot at the UAW in the union’s stronghold:

“I’ve taken on union bosses before and I’m happy to take them on again,” he told a crowd crammed into a furniture company facility. “I sure won’t give in to UAW.”

During his visit to Compatico, an office systems furniture maker in the Grand Rapids suburb of Kentwood, Romney said his record shows he has been “standing up for workers, not union bosses.”

The contrast between the two candidates’ backgrounds and approaches to the issue could not be clearer. Romney knows his one chance of heading off a tidal wave of conservative sentiment that could sweep Santorum to the nomination is by emphasizing the differences between his chief rival’s approach to big government and lack of interest in taking on unions. Santorum’s attempt to cast himself as the one Republican who cares about lower income Americans might be tailor-made for Michigan. Yet there may be more Republican votes to be won here by painting yourself as the enemy of a union movement closely aligned with President Obama than in posing as the friend of the working man.

Romney’s strengths as a Republican candidate have always been the belief in his greater electability and the divided conservative field. But, with his numbers declining in head-to-head matchups with Obama and with Santorum appearing to be his only viable rival for the nomination, both of these advantages are fading. Merely attacking Santorum won’t work–the Pennsylvanian is a lot more likeable than a candidate like Newt Gingrich whose personal and political baggage provided a more credible target for negative advertising. Romney must find an issue with which he can connect with conservatives. Though it goes against conventional wisdom to run against unions in Michigan, this tactic might be the smartest way for Romney to avoid a disastrous loss in his home state.



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