The Michigan presidential primary on February 28 could be a head-on collision with political reality for Mitt Romney.
On the surface, Romney seems to have many advantages. The Republican candidate was born in Detroit. His father George was head of American Motors Corp. and also served as governor of the state. And on Thursday, Romney won the endorsement of Gov. Rick Snyder, and he has a strong organization in Michigan.
But Romney has lost his lead. A new poll by the Detroit News and CNN has former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum with 34 percent of the likely vote to Romney's 30.
Romney's problem in Michigan is the same as it is nationally—conservative voters don't see him as truly one of them, and he hasn't been able to generate much enthusiasm for his candidacy among other segments of the electorate.
But in Michigan, Romney's plight is more acute because, as a native son, he has the home-field advantage and has been expected to win.
"It's still a race up for grabs but if Santorum were to break through in Michigan it would be huge," says Frank Donatelli, chairman of the GOPAC political action committee and former White House political director for President Ronald Reagan. Donatelli predicts that the nomination contest won't be over any time soon even if Romney pulls out a win in Michigan.
Adds another senior Republican strategist: "If Romney loses Michigan, he's got a mountain of trouble."
Romney has been intensifying his attacks on Santorum and is about to hit Santorum with the full weight of a planned massive TV ad campaign.
Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, has been emphasizing his support for right-to-work policies that forbid compulsory union membership—a popular view among many conservatives. He is attacking Santorum for voting against a proposed federal right-to-work law as a senator, and says Santorum was a congressional ally of "big labor."
It's unclear what the impact will be of Romney's opposition to the federal bailout of the auto industry, based in Michigan. Many Michigan voters were disappointed by his stand but many conservatives who are likely to vote in the primary back Romney's position opposing the federal bailout, which Santorum shares.