Tough talk and tactics a testament to high stakes in Michigan primary

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Detroit (CNN) — Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum opened up a new front in their battle for the Republican presidential nomination, this time over tactics, as Arizona and Michigan were voting in their primaries on Tuesday.

Romney and Santorum are locked up in a battle for Michigan, the state in which Romney was born and his father served as governor. A Santorum win could help him regain the momentum that he had after winning primaries and caucuses in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri in the same night earlier this month. It could also raise more questions about how strong a candidate Romney is within his own party.

Santorum on Monday launched automated phone calls asking Democrats “to send a loud message to Massachusetts Mitt Romney,” and vote for him in the primary. Michigan’s primary is an open one, meaning that all voters can participate regardless of party affiliation.

That comes in addition to efforts by liberal bloggers to get Democrats and independents to vote for Santorum as a way of damaging Romney’s chances of winning the nomination.

Speaking to reporters in Livonia on Tuesday morning — for the first time in nearly three weeks — Romney called the tactics “a real effort to kidnap our primary process” and called on Republicans to turn out “and say no to the dirty tricks of a desperate campaign.”

Santorum defended the calls Tuesday morning in Kentwood, telling CNN, “We’re going to get voters that we need to be able to win this election and we’re going to do that here in Michigan.”

The former Pennsylvania senator said Romney used the same tactics when he encouraged New Hampshire voters to cross over and vote for him.

“And when he goes out and recruits folks who aren’t Republicans that’s all right,” Santorum said.

Romney took a shot at Santorum’s rise in the polls, attributing that to his “incendiary comments.”

“We have seen throughout the campaign that if you are willing to say really outrageous things that are accusative and attacking of President Obama, that you are going to jump up in the polls. You know, I am not willing to light my hair on fire to try and get support. I am who I am.”

The tough talk is indicative of the high stakes in Michigan. Romney has led nationwide polls off and on over the course of the campaign but hasn’t been able to seal the deal. Santorum is the latest of Romney’s rivals to challenge him for front-runner status by playing on conservatives’ reservations about the former Massachusetts governor.

Santorum’s hat trick earlier this month propelled him to a lead in national polls and a double-digit lead in Michigan two weeks ago. But he had a lackluster performance in last week’s CNN/Arizona Republican debate and has fallen behind Romney in national polls and into a close race in Michigan.

Fifty-nine delegates are up for grabs in the two states vote but momentum will be the bigger prize.

“Mitt Romney’s ferocious campaign against Santorum in Michigan is pivot point of the campaign,” GOP strategist and CNN contributor Alex Castellanos said.

Both candidates have been spending most of their time in Michigan following the debate, and Castellanos says a Romney win there will greatly boost his campaign.

“In Michigan, Romney has brought Santorum down from a double-digit lead to a few points in his wake. If Romney wins in Michigan, there will be no opponent left he hasn’t defeated one-on-one.

“In the year of the comeback, it may turn out that the king of the comebacks is Mitt Romney,” added Castellanos, who was a top media adviser for Romney’s 2008 nomination bid but who is not taking sides this cycle.

Michigan and Arizona come four days before Washington state holds its contest on Saturday and a week before 10 states hold primaries and caucuses on Super Tuesday.

“If Romney wins Michigan, he can suffer a few losses on Super Tuesday and still take the nomination,” Castellanos said.

But another Republican operative took a different view.

“My take is anyone trying to predict momentum this cycle has gotten it wrong,” said Gentry Collins, a former political director for the Republican National Committee and the Republican Governors Association. “I think this race is less about momentum or knockout punches and more about a delegate fight. So, I think the narrative is this will be a contest for a while regardless of Michigan.”

“If Romney can win in Michigan, while presumably winning in Arizona, he continues to rack up delegates and stunt the ability of his challengers to be effective at the convention — but his opponents will not have sustained a knockout blow either,” added Collins, who steered Romney’s campaign in Iowa four years ago but who is not backing a candidate this cycle.

“National polling, state-based polling for March and April contests and the nagging issue that even with Romney restored as the frontrunner there is still room for a non-Romney candidate if one of these other guys could unify that vote are all issues that conspire to keep the race going,” Collins said. “While a Romney loss in Michigan is a PR problem for the Romney camp, it doesn’t fundamentally change much if any of the dynamic.”

John Brabender, one of Santorum’s top advisers, has been downplaying expectations in the state since last week, pointing out that since the 30 delegates at stake in Michigan are proportional, a second-place finish with a decent delegate haul in the state where Romney was born is just as good as a win.

The Romney campaign and an independent pro-Romney super PAC have flooded Michigan airwaves with ads, both positive and negative, greatly outspending the Santorum campaign and a super PAC that supports him. And the Santorum campaign sees that as a victory.

“The Romney campaign is spending a fortune they never expected to spend in Michigan, and every dollar they spend in Michigan is a dollar they don’t have on Super Tuesday,” Branbender told CNN Political Reporter Peter Hamby on Monday.

While Michigan is getting inundated with spots, Arizona’s airwaves are less cluttered with campaign commercials.

“The fact that we’re seeing advertising action in Michigan, but not in Arizona is telling. Campaigns — and groups — advertise when it makes strategic sense and when they have the resources,” said Kenneth Goldstein, CNN’s consultant on TV advertising and president of Campaign Media Analysis Group (CMAG), a company that tracks and estimates the costs of campaign ads running on the air.

“It confirms most observers assessments from polling and fundraising reports. Michigan is the more competitive race of the two and that the campaigns have to triage their resources for what could be primary campaign that continues well beyond these late February contests,” Goldstein added.

While not getting the attention of Michigan, the candidates did all attend a CNN/Republican Party of Arizona GOP presidential debate Wednesday in Mesa. Both Romney and Santorum campaigned in the state around the debate.

The most recent polls indicate Romney with a single-digit to a double-digit lead over Santorum, with Gingrich and Paul further behind. Since Arizona’s 29 delegates are winner-take-all, neither Gingrich or Paul has spent much time in the state.

Arizona’s primary is a semi-open one, which means Republicans and independents can vote in it. Early voting in Arizona began February 2 and officials say about half of those eligible to vote in the primary will have already done so by Tuesday.

For Gingrich, it’s all about Super Tuesday and Georgia next week, which he represented in Congress for more two decades.

“I want to focus on winning in Georgia. I think it is essential to us to do that and we are going to do everything we can between now and next Tuesday to win here at home,” Gingrich said last weekend while campaigning in the state.

But another major political event with Gingrich far from the spotlight will not benefit his bid for the nomination, one strategist said.

“He was a non-starter in the Missouri-Minnesota-Colorado primary/caucuses, and he is a non-participant in Michigan and Arizona,” said GOP political strategist Rich Galen, who ran Gingrich’s press operation when he was speaker of the House and advised Fred Thompson’s 2008 Republican presidential bid but is not taking sides this cycle.

“He hasn’t won a state since South Carolina and hasn’t even been in the hunt since Florida. That is, there have been six primary election activities since Florida in which Newt hasn’t even been in the conversation,” Galen added.

For Paul, the longtime congressman from Texas who’s making his third bid for the White House, Arizona’s an afterthought.

Paul has campaigned briefly in Michigan, where he’d like to pick up some delegates on Tuesday, but mostly he’s looking ahead to Washington state and the Super Tuesday caucuses, where he hopes to increase his delegate count.

CNN’s Jim Acosta, Dana Bash and Eric Marrapodi contributed to this report.

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