TROY, Mich. — Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum on Saturday took their down-to-the-wire Michigan Republican primary duel to an influential group of conservative activists, a bloc each has to have to eke out a win in the too-close-to-call contest.
Both candidates offered fiery, red-meat appeals — and stinging criticisms of one another — before about 1,200 people shoehorned into the San Marino Club in this Detroit suburb.
They spoke hours apart, and each tried to portray himself as the race's most committed conservative. Whoever proves the most convincing here, and throughout the state, will gain an edge in Tuesday's crucial GOP primary. Romney is vying to win the state his father once governed; Santorum is trying to show he can win in a blue-collar, industrial state.
Santorum, the former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, roused the crowd by insisting he's been consistently on the right throughout his life.
"What you see is what you get," he said, "as opposed to what you see today is not what you may get tomorrow."
He proceeded to rip Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, for his past center-right positions and his ties to Wall Street and the Republican establishment.
"I worked my way to the success I have and I'm proud of it," said Santorum, the son and grandson of Italian immigrants.
He also pushed the "common man" theme hard.
"President Obama wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob," Santorum said. "There are good, decent men and women who work hard every day and put their skills to the test that aren't taught by some liberal college professor."
Going to college, Santorum charged, will allow Obama "to remake you in his image."
Romney, appearing a few hours later, started by having his wife, Ann, talk about her family's immigrant roots — her father was from Wales — and their path to success. Mitt Romney recalled growing up in the Detroit area. "Lots of stories here. Deep roots here," he said.
He spent much of his talk bashing Obama and Santorum.
"This president is out of ideas. He's out of excuses. In 2012 he's going to be out of office," Romney said. He blasted Santorum for his Senate votes to raise the debt ceiling and for budget legislation that included family planning funds.
Santorum seemed to get a better response, but Romney was well received.
In the audience and the halls, attendees were often circumspect about the two candidates, expressing the same concerns heard throughout this state in recent days. People thought Romney was more electable and felt some pull for him because of his local roots. But they also felt affection for Santorum and his strong social conservative views.
The people at the Troy forum, sponsored by Americans for Prosperity Michigan, a conservative organization, are the kind of local activists candidates badly want. Many were still not entirely sure who they'll vote for, a signal that although polls show Romney with a slight lead, it's still anyone's race.
"I like Mitt's economic strength but I like Santorum's slightly more conservative views," said Stephen Lord, a Bloomfield Hills home remodeler.
As a businessman, Lord said he's fed up with government regulations — a reason to tilt to Romney. But as a conservative, he appreciates Santorum's devotion to his religion.
Romney rarely incites passion among Republican voters in this state, instead drawing praise for his management and political acumen.
Yvonne Babin, a Port Huron retiree, is leaning toward Romney. "I like what some of the others stand for," she said, "but I think Mitt's got a better chance of winning for the Republican Party."
But Romney's record bothers people. They cite his support of abortion rights while running for the U.S. Senate and later governor of Massachusetts. He has since said he is staunchly anti-abortion.
"I am a conservative," he declared Saturday.
Santorum had his own view of Romney's barbs. "It's absolutely laughable for a liberal governor of Massachusetts to suggest that I am not conservative," he said.
Many in Michigan, though, remain troubled by Romney's opposition to the auto bailouts but support for helping Wall Street. And they are disturbed by his backing of Massachusetts' near-universal health care, a measure that became the model for the 2010 federal health care law that Republicans loathe.
Santorum tried to appeal to those doubts. "I wasn't for Obamacare, Romneycare or any other care except your care," he said. "I wasn't for bailouts."
That resonated with some attendees.
"I think it's wrong to force everybody to have something they don't want," explained Tim Lintz, a retired automotive engineer from Lapeer.
"You can be sure Santorum will tell the truth," added A. J. Erikson, a Clinton Township administrative assistant.
The key message Saturday: A lot of folks are still making up their minds.
"I want someone who will make the hard decisions, such as redoing the entire tax system," said Bruce Jones, a Durand businessman. "But I haven't made a decision. I've been busy with work."
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