TROY, Michigan -- Rick Santorum had been speaking for nearly an hour Sunday night in Davison. He had laid out his policies on economics, on energy, on social issues and national security. He had defended his record against attacks from his Republican rival, Mitt Romney, and expressed strong criticism of President Obama's policies. He took questions from the audience of about 400 people who packed Crystal Hall and gave lengthy, detailed answers. When it came time for the final question, a man mentioned the "kid gloves" treatment that many conservatives felt Obama received from 2008 GOP nominee John McCain. Would Santorum go after Obama?
"Well, what do you think?" Santorum answered, getting a huge cheer from the crowd. Santorum said that he has tried to avoid personal attacks in the long Republican primary campaign and preferred to "keep it on the issues." The former Pennsylvania senator then said, "I'm not going to go out and personally attack Barack Obama.… I'm going to talk about what he's done to this country. I'm going to talk about his policies.… I'm going to hold him accountable for every decision he's made.… Let me assure you, we will draw a contrast. We will talk about what's at stake in this country. We will not let you down. We will fight for your principles and we'll fight for this country. Just help us, here in Michigan, on Tuesday."
There was nothing controversial in those comments, and so they didn't become an instant banner headline on the Drudge Report. For the past two weeks, ever since a series of polls showed Santorum surging after his Feb. 7 triple victory in Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri, a non-stop drumbeat of "controversy" headlines have portrayed Santorum as a radical right-wing extremist. Meanwhile, and with irony approaching the level of utter absurdity, attack ads from the Romney campaign and its allied Restore Our Future super PAC have sought to portray Santorum as a big-spending liberal. One Romney campaign radio ad says Santorum voted "just like liberal Carl Levin" – one of Michigan's two Democratic senators – in favor of the so-called "Bridge to Nowhere" in Alaska.
The attacks are a ridiculous distortion of Santorum's record. During his years in Congress, Santorum amassed an admirable record as a fiscal conservative and, as recently detailed by Jeffrey Anderson and Andy Wickersham in the Weekly Standard, had one of the highest ratings from the National Taxpayers Union. Addressing the accusations of liberalism from Romney on the stump, Santorum sometimes seems astonished that anyone would believe such charges – especially considering the source.
"In 1994, [Romney] ran to the left of Ted Kennedy, and if you have any doubt, go look at the last debate between the two them – it's hard to tell them apart," Santorum told the audience Sunday in Davison, contrasting Romney's failed Senate bid with his own successful upset victory that year over Pennsylvania Democratic Sen. Harris Wofford. "Now for someone to run, in a critical election year – 1994, the year of the revolution, the Contract With America – who says, 'no I won't be a Reagan Republican, no I don't support the Contract With America, I'm not a conservative,' to now go and run ads here in the state of Michigan, and say, 'Oh, Rick Santorum, because he voted for this bill or that bill' -- out of the 4,000 votes that I cast in the United States Senate -- 'is not a conservative,' just doesn't hold water."
As with Romney's previous attacks on Newt Gingrich, Santorum finds himself presented with a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't dilemma: The attacks cannot simply be ignored and yet, when the target responds, he is accused of being "defensive," of seeming "angry" or even "whining." Nevertheless, the very fact that Romney has found himself having to spend millions of dollars in an effort to avoid an embarrassing defeat in his native Michigan is testimony to the power of Santorum's challenge. He has made a direct and quite personal appeal to blue-collar voters in the state he calls "America's industrial heartland." During his Sunday night speech, while discussing his energy policy, Santorum elicited cheers when he said, "I'm not a Texas oilman… [but] yes, I have an energy background: My grandfather was a coal miner."
The Santorum campaign is also clearly aiming to maximize his support among conservative Catholics, who are expected to account for as many as a third of voters in Tuesday's Republican primary. On Friday, Santorum got a rock-star reception when he attended a Lenten fish fry at a parish in Walled Lake. "I love the smell of fish on a Friday night," Santorum said, provoking loud applause with his praise of a Catholic tradition.
Santorum's challenge has been more effective because Romney hasn't enjoyed an utterly lopsided advantage in advertising here. Although Romney has outspent the Santorum campaign by an estimated 3-to-2 ratio, Santorum has hit back with his own TV ads. The Santorum campaign also has sent out a mailing that contrasts his record with Romney's and tells GOP voters, "You can't turn on the TV without seeing a vicious negative attack ad by Mitt Romney. Not only are the ads insulting and offensive, they're downright false."
Recent polls indicate that Romney has regained his lead over Santorum in Michigan, albeit by a margin so narrow that an upset by Santorum is still possible Tuesday. Romney has always been the favorite to win here, but Santorum has made sure he won't win it without a fight.