Politics & Policy

Rick Rising in Michigan

As the primary tightens, Santorum hopes for a surprise.

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.

#ad#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.”

#page#Whether those attacks are enough for Santorum to win Michigan away from its favorite son Romney is unclear. Gary Husted, a window technician from Sutton’s Bay, Michigan, decided to vote for Santorum this month. “He’s the most conservative candidate left,” Husted says, adding that he has “reservations” about Romney. “I don’t really trust him. He seems to pander,” and what he says “depends on his audience.”

Voters at Santorum events are dismissive of the attack ads against Santorum that the Romney campaign and Romney’s super PAC, Restore Our Future, have been running in the state. (Santorum, too, has run an attack ad against Romney, but has a considerably smaller presence on the airwaves.) Janice Slater, a registered nurse and realtor from Traverse City, isn’t buying the ads’ message. “There are a lot of millions of dollars going to picking out sound bites that do not tell the truth,” she says. Marilyn Webb of Kalamazoo is resigned to the fact that Santorum’s record isn’t perfect. “He was in government, so of course he’s had to pass some laws that are not really as conservative as what we would like, but that’s part of being in the Congress,” she says.

#ad#Santorum backers reject, too, the idea that his candidacy would be unviable and quixotic in the general election. “He represents the direct opposite of what the current administration is,” says Brian Ledford, who attended Santorum’s Traverse City event. He compares Romney with John McCain, who he thinks didn’t turn out the conservative vote in the general election, asking “How can you get fired up about a moderate?” Scott Van Horn, of Grand Junction, Michigan, points out that Romney won’t be able to outspend Obama by the same multiples he’s outspent his Republican rivals. In contrast, Santorum “has that clear-cut message and can stand on principle, not just on his pocketbook.”

With polls showing Santorum and Romney virtually tied in the state, tonight’s result is anyone’s guess. But Santorum is pushing for another surprise win. “We have an opportunity here tomorrow in Michigan, here in Kalamazoo, to go out and do something big,” he said at the rally Monday night. “Shock the establishment,” he tells the crowd, raising cheers.

In Lansing earlier that day, Santorum pushed back against the idea that he was unelectable in the general, arguing that conservative candidates, not moderates, fared better in presidential politics. “All the Democrats and all the folks who are political experts are saying, ‘Oh, can’t nominate Santorum. He’ll be a disaster. Ha ha ha,’” Santorum observed sarcastically.

He then suggested that, Tuesday night, he and his supporters would be the ones amused.

“He who laughs last,” said Santorum, “laughs best.”

— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.

Katrina Trinko — Katrina Trinko is a political reporter for National Review. Trinko is also a member of USA TODAY’S Board of Contributors, and her work has been published in various media outlets ...

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