By ALAN FRAM, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — Republican Mitt Romney is faltering with white working-class voters crucial to his party's drive to capture the White House, even as he tries to fend off a rising GOP challenger, Rick Santorum, who wields strong blue-collar appeal.
The wealthy former Bain Capital chief has led his rivals by comfortable margins among white college graduates, according to combined polls of voters in the first five states that held presidential nominating contests. But the exit and entry surveys showed only a modest Romney advantage among whites who lack college degrees, the yardstick analysts typically use to define the working class.
The imbalance was most pronounced among less-educated white men, with whom his lead disappeared.
More recent polling bears out the same problem for Romney. According to a national poll of Republicans released this week by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, the former Massachusetts governor has a slender lead over Santorum among whites with degrees but trails him among working-class whites, 36 percent to 23 percent.
Romney's lukewarm performance with less-educated whites could haunt him in the Feb. 28 Michigan primary. Though it's Romney's native state, Santorum is using his upbringing in the western Pennsylvania manufacturing town of Butler, his rougher-edged style and his "Made in America" proposals for boosting U.S. manufacturing to woo Michigan's many blue-collar voters.
Romney's weakness with working-class whites is a liability he would also have to address as the nominee. GOP presidential candidates often need big margins from this group to offset weaker support from others.
"It has to be a concern," said GOP pollster John McLaughlin, who is not working for a presidential candidate. "What these voters are looking for is, 'Tell me how you're going to help my life.' If we can't articulate that, then we're going to lose."
Some voters view Romney as "an ultra-wealthy individual," said David Hill, another GOP pollster who is not working in the presidential race. "They have a sense he cannot identify with ordinary Americans. He'll have ample time over the course of campaigning in the general election to rectify that."
The sometimes-staid Romney is already trying to do just that.
He recently described his father as a carpenter who could spit nails out of his mouth "pointy end forward," without mentioning that George Romney became CEO of the American Motors Corp. and governor of Michigan. He also described how rising fuel and food prices have been "tough for middle-income families in America," and said the country needs a president with "experience in a factory or experience in a workplace" who can understand how to create jobs.
Romney also generally supports increases in the minimum wage, which should appeal to blue-collar voters.
Santorum, son and grandson of Italian immigrants, has a more personal connection to working-class voters that he's always ready to discuss. He cites his childhood living in apartments provided by the Veterans Administration, where his father worked as a psychologist, and never misses an opportunity to discuss his grandfather.
"My grandfather was a coal miner. I grew up in a steel town, with blue-collar roots," the now well-off former Pennsylvania senator said Tuesday in Boise, Idaho.
Strategists and political scientists attribute Romney's problem partly to his personal wealth and financier background and a string of statements his opponents have used to characterize him as an out-of-touch patrician. He has jokingly called himself unemployed, said he knows what it is like to fear a pink slip and characterized his $373,000 earnings from paid speeches as "not very much" money.
Romney has also been hurt by his tax returns. They show he pays around 15 percent of his income in taxes — less than many middle-income families — and has placed some assets in Swiss bank accounts and other exotic locations like the Cayman Islands.
"There's no identification, no connection that he makes with some of these voters," said Terry Madonna, a political scientist and pollster at Franklin & Marshall College.
Campaigning Thursday in Michigan, Romney renewed his call for stronger "right-to-work" laws, which bar workplaces from requiring employees to join a labor union.