Rick Rising in Michigan
As the primary tightens, Santorum hopes for a surprise.

Rick Santorum speaks in Shelby Township, Mich., February 17, 2012


Katrina Trinko

Kalamazoo, Michigan — On the eve of the Michigan primary, the road to Rick Santorum’s rally is littered with disappointed people trekking back to their cars.

There are cars lining every stretch of this road of suburban homes winding up to the Christian school where Santorum will speak. The two-way road has become one-way, thanks to the number of parked cars clogging the street, and a bumper-to-bumper traffic jam emerges. Those walking against the traffic shout out to anyone heading toward the school that it’s full, that no one else is being allowed in.

It’s this kind of momentum that Santorum is counting on to deliver him a Michigan win tonight.

“We’re really excited about the response,” Santorum said at the Kalamazoo event, describing what’s he seen criss-crossing Michigan in recent days. “I think we’re going to surprise a few people tomorrow night.”

“And the reason I believe we’re going to surprise people,” he continued, “is because we’ve been actually going out there and talking about a positive vision for our country, something that can maybe get people excited about the future.”

Santorum does indeed have a vision — and not one that lends itself to short speeches. Generally, he talks from 40 minutes to an hour, riffing on topics ranging from the philosophical differences between America’s Founding Fathers and France’s revolutionaries to the need to ax onerous regulations and the importance of preserving religious liberties.

Santorum’s proposal to eliminate the corporate tax on manufacturers has garnered the most attention, but his vision for blue-collar Americans extends beyond that. “We will transform all of these little towns across America,” Santorum said in Lansing the day before the primary, describing how a factory could revitalize a locality. In Kalamazoo, he was careful in his language about higher education (“college is a great thing”), but adamant that the United States needed to be a place where everyone could prosper. “There’s a lot of people who don’t want to go to college and have other skills that need to be upgraded so they can produce in this society,” Santorum said. “Manufacturing is the perfect place for them to be able to exhibit those skills, and we can turn this country around for everybody from the bottom up in America.”

Another Santorum theme is the decline of community and institutions — churches, civic organizations — at the local level. “We had a community,” Santorum waxed nostalgically, recalling his childhood and the way neighbors relied on each other. “We had things that made us feel safe, made us feel like we were part of something bigger than ourselves. It was a network. It worked for America. It allowed government to be limited.” Facebook and other social-media sites, he added, showed that Americans still “are longing to be part of something.”

But Santorum also doles out the tough talk. In Traverse City on Sunday, as he discussed the need for health care to become more market-oriented, he said, “I know people in America are conditioned to think ‘Well, we shouldn’t have to decide between going to see the doctor and putting gas in my car.’ Well, you have to decide between putting gas in your car and buying food.” He mockingly described how food consumption would rise if the government had as much control over food purchasing as it does health care.

Santorum is just as frank when talking about the United States’ overall fiscal condition. “I didn’t run for president at the most critical time in American history to come out here and tell Americans a bunch of happy talk that doesn’t tell you the truth about the fiscal situation we’re in right now,” he said.

He criticized Paul Ryan’s entitlements plan for being too “timid” and not changing the status quo quickly enough. “We need to do something now,” Santorum said of entitlements, focusing on Social Security and Medicare. “I’m not going to go out and tell you a lie, ‘Oh, I won’t touch those programs.’ I can’t say that. Because it’s not true and it’s not fair.”

“Thank you, Rick,” responds a woman in the audience. Tim Strauss, a psychologist from Petoskey, Michigan, thinks Santorum won’t be hurt by his entitlements talk. “I think people are ready for that,” he says.

As the speech continues, Santorum trains his fire on Romney, attacking him on Romneycare, his climate-change positions, and support for TARP. And he takes other jabs: “I care about the very rich, and oh, by the way, I care about the very poor, too,” he said in Traverse City. In Kalamazoo, he dismissed Romney’s new tax plan, “Give him credit: He lowered taxes a little bit, cut them by 20 percent to the rate that I suggested. It’s nice to be copied, [I] take that as flattery.”