GOP presidential candidates courting tea party vote
In his third Michigan stop to unseat chief rival Mitt Romney, former Sen. Rick Santorum told a packed rally of tea party supporters Friday they have an opportunity on Feb. 28 to turn the GOP presidential race “on its ear.”
Greeted by an enthusiastic overflow crowd of more than 1,500, Santorum asked whether they want a GOP challenger who can take on President Barack Obama on health care, the Wall Street bailout and government control of their lives.
“Or do want someone who can just manage Washington a little better?” he asked in not-so-veiled contrast to Romney, a Michigan native. “What does Michigan have to say?”
The conservative crowd roared back with a standing ovation — a vivid illustration of Romney’s tea party problem in his home state.
The tea party movement has steam in Michigan, but its influence in the Michigan primary is not yet clear. It’s a must-win for Romney and potentially an upset opportunity for Santorum.
Exit polling in the 2008 presidential primary, before the tea party stormed the scene and helped deliver GOP control to the U.S. House in 2010, showed Romney — not then-rival Sen. John McCain — won the majority bloc of voters who considered themselves somewhat or very conservative. This year, however, Romney has struggled to become the conservative choice.
If Romney can’t win over tea party supporters, he can’t win Michigan, said Steve Mitchell, an East Lansing-based pollster. “They are going to have a big impact on the primary,” he said, expecting 2 out of 3 primary voters to support the tea party movement.
A Detroit News/WDIV Local 4 poll published Thursday showed Santorum with a slight advantage over Romney, but his support among voters who considered themselves tea party supporters or conservative was dominant — up by double-digit percentage points.
“I think a lot of people question his conservative credentials,” said Adam Tountas, chairman of the Republican Party of Ottawa County, which touts itself as the most Republican county in the state. “I don’t know if Romney has stuck his neck out for the conservative agenda.”
The challenge to woo the right of the Republican Party is one Romney has been addressing throughout the campaign, and during a stop Thursday in Michigan, he said he’s “lived conservatism.” His campaign and attack ads have tried to poke holes in Santorum’s record, which includes votes to increase the debt ceiling and backing earmarks. .
But among tea party faithful Friday at the Palazzo Grande Banquet and Event Center, voters said Romney’s Michigan roots are not enough and they don’t believe he’s conservative enough.
“I believe Gov. Romney at heart is still a Democrat,” said Charles Newby, 74, of Chesterfield Township.
“I don’t believe he’s a true Republican.”
Santorum’s campaign in Michigan pales in money, advertising, organization and endorsements to the Romney operation. Still unclear is how many grassroots organizers and tea partiers will head to the polls Feb. 28.
“There’s so many of us out here,” said Greg Montpetit, a tea party supporter from Grosse Pointe Woods and Santorum supporter.
“We’re not marching, but we’re out here.”
Montpetit and his wife, Lisa, believe tea party supporters will have a big influence on Michigan’s presidential nominee.
“This government is ripping apart families, ripping apart values, ripping apart religions,” Lisa Montpetit said. “We are going to fight for our families and our country.”
Former Republican state Rep. Brian Palmer came to the Santorum event as a Romney surrogate to offer real-time rebuttals at rival rallies.
Palmer said he considers himself a “die-hard conservative” and found himself clapping during the Santorum speech.
He likes Santorum and understands how tea partiers were cheering for him, but Palmer said his message to fellow conservatives is that Romney is the candidate who can achieve their ultimate goal: defeat Barack Obama.
“Get behind Gov. Romney,” Palmer said. “The sooner you do it, the better.”
Surprised by crowd
Organizers of the Santorum event were expecting a couple of hundred, but when the line into the large, chandeliered banquet room couldn’t keep up with staff placing additional chairs, crowds started to stand along the walls.
The seated attendees roared to their feet when Santorum took the microphone. Lori Sinistaj, 36, of Macomb Township said she brought her two sons to introduce them to the election process and to see the candidate. As she was leaving, she said her undecided vote had changed to one for Santorum.
“My stance on big government and his stance against big government are the same,” she said. “I’m also pro-life, so I agree with him on abortion issues.”
Detroit News Staff Writer Mike Wilkinson contributed.