By BETH FOUHY, Associated Press
Mitt Romney's campaign and an allied independent group have launched a heavy television ad blitz to shore up the former Massachusetts governor's position in his home state of Michigan and undercut his opponents in several states holding contests in coming weeks. Many of the ads target Rick Santorum, who has emerged as Romney's top conservative rival but who has far fewer resources to defend himself on television.
Romney's campaign is spending $1.2 million in ads in Michigan, where the primary is Feb. 28. Restore Our Future, a super political action committee staffed by former Romney advisers, has set its sights even wider.
The group is spending roughly $6 million on TV ads in Michigan and Arizona, another state with a Feb. 28 primary, as well as in the March 6 Super Tuesday states of Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Ohio, and in Mississippi and Alabama, which vote March 13.
Restore Our future is also spending about $180,000 on radio ads in those states, bringing the combined total to $2.6 million on ads.
The pro-Romney spending is in striking contrast to the rest of the Republican field, demonstrating anew the broad financial advantage Romney has over his rivals.
Santorum has managed only small cable buys in Michigan and a few other states despite his recent surge in polls. Neither Newt Gingrich nor Ron Paul is running television ads at all, and super PAC activity on their behalf is limited.
Strategists for the Red, White and Blue Fund, a pro-Santorum group, say they will begin running ads soon in Michigan but have yet to buy air time. And Winning Our Future, a super PAC supporting Gingrich, is running radio ads but hasn't been on television since the week before Florida's primary on Jan. 31. The group's major patron, Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, has not indicated whether he plans to contribute any more than the $11 million he and family members have already given the group.
The pro-Romney television spending is highly strategic, and shows the lengths to which he and supporters plan to go to help reinforce Romney's status as the field's putative front-runner.
Michigan has emerged as a critical battleground, pitting Romney — a native whose father was the state's governor — against Santorum, whose blue-collar roots and vow to revive the U.S. manufacturing base has struck a chord in the economically challenged auto manufacturing hub. That's why Romney's campaign and Restore Our Future are bringing their considerable resources to bear against what would potentially be a crippling loss there for Romney.
While the Romney campaign's ads in Michigan have stayed positive so far, Restore Our Future launched a new ad Wednesday slamming Santorum in Michigan, Ohio and Arizona. The ad paints the former Pennsylvania senator as a prodigious spender and Washington insider.
"In a single session, Santorum co-sponsored 51 bills to increase spending and zero to cut spending," the ad says.
The ad also revives a claim Santorum has bitterly disputed, suggesting he supported legislation allowing felons to vote. Santorum voted for legislation that would have restored felons' voting rights after they served their sentences and parole. Restore Our Future ran similar ads against Santorum in South Carolina.
Romney's message so far has been largely biographical.
"I grew up in Michigan, it was exciting to be here," Romney says his latest ad, as old images of Detroit-made automobiles flash by along with photos of Romney as a boy with his father. The ad criticizes President Barack Obama for continuing the bailout of U.S. auto manufacturers. Romney opposed the bailout.
Santorum's campaign has gone on the air in Michigan with a humorous ad showing a Romney lookalike shooting mud from a gun at a cutout of Santorum.
"Mitt Romney's negative attack machine is back on full throttle," the ad says, suggesting Romney is running away from promoting the universal health coverage law he signed as governor of Massachusetts and later became a blueprint for Obama's health care reform.
But Santorum's campaign has spent just $42,000 on cable television to run the ad in Michigan. It has also purchased about $223,000 in cable advertising in Ohio, Tennessee and Oklahoma.
Gingrich and Santorum are eyeing success in Ohio, the biggest Super Tuesday prize and another manufacturing state hit hard by the recession. Restore Our Future is working to shore up Romney's position there and in other Super Tuesday states and Southern strongholds Gingrich intends to challenge, including Georgia, which he represented in Congress.
Gingrich has struggled to regain momentum since losing Florida's primary after Romney and the allied group spent $15 million against him.
Associated Press writers Philip Elliott and Kasie Hunt in Washington, Tom Beaumont in Iowa and Steve Peoples in Detroit contributed to this report.
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