With a new poll hinting at a tightening race in the pivotal Michigan primary, Republican presidential contender Rick Santorum tried to stoke blue-collar resentments Monday in the conservative western part of the state.
The former senator from Pennsylvania is aiming for a knockout blow to Mitt Romney in one of his rival's strongholds. Santorum told supporters in the gritty Great Lakes harbor town of Muskegon that he was anticipating "what could be a sound heard round the world here in Michigan" next week.
Attacking "the elite in society" and what he called President Obama's "radical environmental ideology," Santorum accused the administration of posing "a false choice" between protecting natural resources and stimulating U.S. economic growth.
"It's a choice that wants to limit your productivity, limit your ability to rise in society, limit your quality of life, so they can control the resources that you get," he told an enthusiastic crowd of several hundred, referring to Obama's plans for attacking global warming. "That's what cap and trade was all about."
Romney, in a sign of the high stakes in Michigan, scheduled a town hall meeting Tuesday in the suburbs of Detroit, one day ahead of the final nationally televised debate before 14 states choose Republican national convention delegates over the next two weeks.
The stepped-up campaign activity in Michigan underscored the importance of the state's Feb. 28 primary. Romney was born in the state and grew up in the Detroit area, and his family name is familiar, particularly to older voters; his late father, George Romney, was a governor and top auto industry executive.
In 2008, Romney won Michigan by 9 percentage points over John McCain, the eventual nominee. A defeat in Michigan — or even a narrow victory — would damage his candidacy heading into the big round of Super Tuesday primaries the following week.
Santorum, for his part, is trying to build on his victories earlier this month, which propelled him Monday to his largest lead yet over Romney — 10 percentage points — in the Gallup tracking poll of Republican voters nationwide. A setback in Michigan could cost Santorum badly needed momentum going into the March 6 contests in Georgia, Ohio, Tennessee, Oklahoma, North Dakota, Massachusetts and other states.
The crush of upcoming primaries and caucuses has scattered the presidential candidates across the nation. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich campaigned in Oklahoma on Monday, and Rep. Ron Paul in North Dakota.
Michigan, though, has taken on outsized importance. Its TV and radio stations are broadcasting millions of dollars in attack ads by Romney, Santorum and their supporters. A new survey by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm, showed Santorum with a 4-percentage-point edge, down from a wider lead in several other statewide polls over the last 10 days.
Campaigning in Ohio on Monday, Romney pounded Santorum, casting him as a creature of Washington who betrayed conservative principles.
"Sen. Santorum goes to Washington and calls himself a budget hawk," the former Massachusetts governor told scores of employees of a medical device company in Newtown, a Cincinnati suburb. "Then after he's been there a while, he says he's no longer a budget hawk. Well, I am a budget hawk. I don't want to spend more money than we take in."
Romney faulted Santorum for voting to raise the nation's debt ceiling five times. But standing next to him was one of his top Ohio supporters, Sen. Rob Portman, who has also voted repeatedly to raise the debt cap.
"We have in Washington a malady that affects so many there — not your senator, but many others — who somehow think it's OK to spend money that they don't have," Romney told the crowd, "and to borrow money from China or from others to pay for it, and to pass that burden on to your families and to your kids."
Santorum also campaigned in Ohio, where he appealed to blue-collar voters.
"We need someone who understands, who comes from the coal fields, who comes from the steel mills, who understands what ordinary working people in America need to provide for themselves and their families," Santorum told a cheering crowd of several hundred in Steubenville, a once-booming steel town.
Santorum grew up nearby in the coal and steel country of western Pennsylvania. His father was a psychologist, his mother was a nurse, and he earned a master's in business administration before going to work as a lawyer at a major firm.
At an event later in Holland, Mich., Santorum escalated his attack on Obama over matters of faith and politics.
"When you have the president of the United States referring to the freedom of religion, and you have the secretary of State referring to the freedom of religion, not as the freedom of religion but the freedom of worship, you should get very nervous, very nervous," he told students at Hope College, a Reformed Church school.
"Because there's a lot of tyrants around the world who will talk about freedom of worship, but they won't talk about freedom of religion. Freedom of worship is what you do within the four walls of the church. Freedom of religion is what you do outside the four walls of the church. What the president is now seeming to mold, in the image of other elitists who think that they know best, is to limit the role of faith in the public square and your role to live that faith out in your public and private lives."
West reported from Muskegon and Holland, Mehta from Newtown and Landsberg from Steubenville. Times staff writer Michael Finnegan contributed to this report.