Workingman’s Anthem
Rick Santorum preaches populism.


Robert Costa

‘Rick Santorum has never been considered a go-to guy for Big Business on Capitol Hill. After all, some corporate types are nervous about his blue-collar roots, his populist proclivities, and his emphasis on religious issues.” So began a Business Week story in January 2006. At the time, Santorum was scrambling to raise money for his reelection campaign against Democrat Bob Casey, a race he ultimately lost. Six years later, however, the perception persists. And at least one corporate type — Mitt Romney — is nervous about Santorum’s rising Rust Belt appeal.

According to the latest polls, Santorum continues to surge in recession-plagued Michigan, which will hold its primary in late February. In the Great Lakes State’s factory towns, where closed auto plants and shuttered strip-mall stores dot the landscape, Santorum’s gritty, middle-class rhetoric is resonating. An American Research Group poll of likely Republican voters has Santorum up by six points, 33 percent to Romney’s 27 percent. A Public Policy Polling survey shows an even larger margin: Santorum leads Romney by 15 points, 39 percent to 24 percent.

Sensing danger, Romney’s campaign has launched a new ad on the Michigan airwaves, touting Romney’s childhood in Detroit, where he grew up as the son of a popular governor. But as they eye the front-runner’s maneuvers, several Santorum advisers tell National Review Online that if Romney’s strategy is to remind people that he used to live in the state, then they’re confident about their chances there. As evidence, they point to the PPP poll, in which a majority of respondents told pollster Tom Jensen that they don’t consider Romney to be a Michigander.

Indeed, if the polling is right and Romney’s home-field advantage is largely superficial, then Santorum’s team sees a real opening to make the Michigan primary a messaging battle. It will partly be a matter of optics — a Pennsylvanian in a sweater vest versus a Bain executive. But at the heart of the pitch will be a policy contrast. On that front, Santorum aides are readying a final, two-week push to illustrate Santorum’s economic populism. There will be mailings and radio spots about his blue-collar beliefs. Unlike his rivals, he’ll talk about incentivizing American companies.

On Thursday, Santorum will address a group of local business leaders at the Detroit Economic Club. Expect him to add policy specifics to his stump speech’s broader themes, a task he has largely avoided thus far. He’ll carefully explain his proposed overhaul, which would create two income tax rates — 10 percent and 28 percent. And he will promote his plan’s tax breaks, which are designed to appeal to conservative parents in Cheboygan and Flint. That includes eliminating the corporate tax for manufacturers and tripling the personal deduction for each child in a family.

“They’ve been looking forward to this speech for months,” says one source close to Santorum’s senior team. “Michigan has always been seen as potential Santorum territory, as a place where they could surprise. Going to Detroit, with all of its manufacturing history, is easy for Santorum. He wants to bring this back to jobs. I know they’re planning on expanding [the platform].”