Romney’s Michigan Worries

It's crunch time for Mitt Romney, as Michigan heads to the polls in a vote that could determine the fate of his presidential campaign. Romney's chances may come down to an X factor neither he nor his pollsters can predict: the number of Democrats who show up to vote in the Republican race.

Michigan defied the national Democratic Party in moving its primary up to Jan. 15. In retaliation, the national party stripped all the state's delegates from the convention, making a victory in the Democratic race essentially meaningless when it comes to the hard math needed to secure the nomination. As a result, most Democrats pulled their names from the ballot; only Hillary Clinton's remains. Romney's lieutenants are now busy trying to figure out just how many Democrats—and independents—might take advantage of that situation to roam over into the Republican primary and pull the lever for Romney's chief rival in Michigan, maverick Arizona Sen. John McCain. A prize of 30 GOP delegates hangs in the balance.

For their part, staffers for Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and former North Carolina senator John Edwards are urging supporters to mark "uncommitted" on their ballots. But nobody seems to know how the whole scenario will play out—including Romney, who is banking on Michigan to propel him back to the forefront of the race following disappointing finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire. "I'm confident that I'm gonna do real well with Republicans," the former Massachusetts governor said at a press conference Monday. "I'm confident that I'll do just fine and hopefully real well with independents. I don't know how Democrats will vote in a Republican primary. That's not something I'm terribly used to."

Romney was raised in the Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills, the son of George Romney, a popular three-term governor and former executive of American Motors (which has since been purchased by Chrysler). And the younger Romney met his wife in elementary school in this state. He was counting on a strong showing here even before he fell short in Iowa and New Hampshire; since then he has reportedly spent $2 million on ads here in just nine days this month while simultaneously pulling his ads in South Carolina and Florida the day after he lost to McCain in New Hampshire. (He has just begun airing ads in South Carolina again.) His campaign desperately needs a burst of momentum heading into those Southern states, where he's polling well behind his chief competitors.

Michigan-based pollster Steve Mitchell says his latest survey shows Romney with a six-point edge over McCain—up four points from his last sounding. But Mitchell estimates that anywhere from 15 to 25 percent of voters in the GOP primary will not be Republicans. If that number swings closer to 25 percent, Mitchell tells NEWSWEEK, Romney will be in big trouble.

Mitchell said the number could spike that high because some Democratic voters might show up at polling places not realizing Obama and Edwards are not on the ticket but still not wanting to vote for Hillary Clinton. In 2000, Mitchell said, the only Democrat on the ballot here was Lyndon LaRouche. Eighty percent of Democrats that year voted for McCain—and some 65 percent of independents did too. "George Bush would have won Michigan if Republicans alone had voted," Mitchell said. "For John McCain, [turnout] is the whole race."

Romney adviser Ron Kaufman agrees, calling McCain crossover voters "a concern" in an interview with NEWSWEEK. Kaufman said the Romney team is banking on good turnout in the Detroit area, where their support is strongest. But if turnout shoots up in the more socially conservative cities of Battle Creek, Traverse City and Kalamazoo—places that look favorably on McCain and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, he said, Romney will fare less well. "This is where the recession hits the hardest," Kaufman said during an interview at a downtown Detroit hotel. Romney has been highlighting his experience as a business leader and the problems that need fixing here, especially in Motor City. He has taken to calling Michigan a "one-state recession" on the stump; the state has the country's highest unemployment rate. But Kaufman said Romney's message—"not only do I understand [the economy] better than the other guys, I've lived it and I've fixed it"—should appeal to a national audience, too. "People more and more are realizing the next president better be able to deal with economic downturn and recession or the country is in trouble, not just Michigan," Kaufman said.

Kaufman says the poll numbers have been trending in Romney's favor over the last few days—and the campaign remains confident. Romney's industry-specific message here seems to be resonating; he argues that if he's elected president he will quintuple to $20 billion the amount of federal money dedicated to research into energy and fuel technology and call a meeting of labor leaders, auto executives, and Congress during his first 100 days in office. Michiganders seem to be overlooking Romney's record in Massachusetts, which included a proposed excise tax that critics said might have led to higher taxes on SUVs, a no-no in car-crazy Michigan, as well as tougher standards for auto emissions that were opposed by car manufacturers. (His aides say he was obligated to comply with a state law.)

On Monday, Romney attended the North American International Auto Show, touring displays featuring only American-made cars and showing a disproportionate interest in minivans. Afterward, at a press conference, Romney was asked how he would invest in the auto industry to improve Michigan's prospects. "It's been a long time since I've been in the investment business … and I wouldn't begin to try and tell an investor in the private world where to make investments in the auto industry," Romney said. He went on to say that the federal government should act as "a partner" with Detroit but not "write a check for a bailout." For a candidate who is running here on his father's legacy as a car-company president and his own as a visionary genius able to fix broken businesses, the answer fell flat. Romney may yet pull it out in this must-win state, but he's going to need to hit the gas.