Romney faces challenge in childhood state
Washington - Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney faces a serious challenge on Tuesday in the Michigan primaries, the state where he grew up and where his father served as governor.
Given his family ties to the state, a loss to former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum there would be seen as particularly costly for Romney.
Michigan's vote comes as the south-western state of Arizona also holds a primary in the series of state-by-state contests to choose the party's nominee to face President Barack Obama in the November presidential elections.
The votes will provide needed momentum to the winner ahead of Super Tuesday next week, when voters in 10 states - the most to vote so far - will have their say.
In Arizona, Romney has a clear, double-digit lead in opinion surveys. But most of the attention has been on Michigan, where an opinion poll released on Monday by Rasmussen showed Romney with just a 2 percentage point lead over Santorum, leaving the race essentially too close to call.
Santorum has surged in Michigan with his appeals to working class voters and populist rhetoric, even though he has lost some of his earlier momentum over his ultra-conservative positions on social issues, such as birth control and abortion.
Santorum's television ads, running in the home state of the US auto industry, paint him as a champion of blue-collar manufacturing workers.
"Who's on the side of Michigan workers? Not Romney," one such ad declares. "He supported the Wall Street bailout while turning his back on Michigan workers."
Romney pointed out in the most recent debate that Santorum also opposed the auto bailout. His ads focus on his childhood in the state -juxtaposing photographs of him as a boy with video of him driving a car around the state now.
But Romney has had to battle gaffes that portray him as out of touch, including a remark that his wife drives "a couple of Cadillacs".
While Santorum, who gained momentum with wins in three smaller states earlier this month, garnered attention over the weekend by calling Obama a "snob" for urging more Americans to get university educations.
The remarks were an apparent veiled reference to Romney, according to John Russo, co-director of the Centre for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University in Ohio.
"Obama is just a proxy for how Santorum has described Romney, trying to engage in a type of class conflict," he said.
If Romney can win decisively in Michigan, it will re-cement his frontrunner status in a party that has been reluctant to rally around him and has instead courted a series of more conservative candidates.
Romney's signature healthcare reform as governor of Massachusetts and changing positions on a variety of issues has proved a particular hindrance to his aspirations.
Santorum is only the latest challenger among candidates seeking to be the conservative alternative to Romney, and fellow candidates Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul also hope to surge in upcoming contests.
A win in Michigan for Santorum would solidify his claims to the conservative mantle, but also has the potential to mobilise the party's moderate establishment. Some have expressed worries that a Santorum candidacy stands little chance against Obama and would turn attention to social issues away from the economy.