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A supporter holds a photo of Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, at a Tea Party rally in St. Clair Shores, Saturday, Feb. 25, 2012. (Paul Sancya/AP/Paul Sancya/AP)
A supporter holds a photo of Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, at a Tea Party rally in St. Clair Shores, Saturday, Feb. 25, 2012. (Paul Sancya/AP/Paul Sancya/AP)

Three things to watch in Michigan's GOP primary Add to ...

The Michigan primary is now in a dead-heat between Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, as we reported Monday morning.

But whatever the outcome tomorrow – a narrow Romney win, or a narrow Santorum win – here are three questions worth keeping in mind:

Is the focus on social issues hurting Rick Santorum?

Rick Santorum’s double-digit lead in Michigan evaporated over the last two weeks and there are several theories for why it happened.

As a Public Policy Polling poll suggested on the eve of the Michigan primary on Tuesday February 28th, a majority of Michiganders are more concerned about the economy than they are about social issues, and by keeping the focus firmly on social issues Mr. Santorum may have missed an opportunity.

On Monday, the eve of the Michigan primary, Mr. Santorum had shifted the focus to the economy, as the Washington Post reports. But he saved his greatest passion on the subject of the role of religion in public life.

“You hear so much about separation of church and state. I’m for separation of church and state. The state has no business telling the church what to do,” he said, according to the Washington Post.

“The central issue of church and state that our founders believed in, which is what I just described, has now been turned on its head. And now it’s the church, people of faith, who have no right to come to the public square and express their points of view. Or practice their faith outside of their church.”

Among conservatives and evangelicals, this is a deeply emotive subject, but his message has the potential to turn off a lot of moderate Republican voters.

“It’s one thing to say Obama or the liberal media are helping take the country to Satan and quite another to say anyone who thinks contraception is ‘OK’ or supports civil unions for gays (nevermind gay marriage) is complicit in the Satanic embrace,” Time Magazine’s Massimo Calabresi writes in his Swampland column on Monday, arguing that on both issues there is significant support among moderate Republicans.

After the Tuesday primaries in Arizona and Michigan, the race jumps to Super Tuesday on March 6th, in which a handful of the 10 states holding contests are southern states, where evangelicals are a crucial bloc.

Perhaps there is no laying off the social conservative agenda for Rick Santorum.

How much did the Romney campaign’s line of attack work?

Mr. Romney delivered a pretty sharp line of attack against Mr. Santorum, depicting him as a big-spending Washington, D.C. insider.

But last week’s final GOP debate in Arizona was rich pickings for the Romney campaign as it honed its anti-Santorum attacks.

In a question from the audience in Arizona, each candidate was asked to describe himself in one word. Mr. Santorum said, “courage.”

In a devastating ad after the debate, the Romney campaign juxtaposed this claim of courage with Mr. Santorum’s track record in Washington, D.C. and his statements, made during the debate, that he voted for legislation that sometimes went against his principles because politics is a team sport and sometimes “you take one for the team.”

“We can’t do that anymore,” Mr. Romney told a Troy, Michigan, audience on Sunday.

“We can’t continue to take one for the team. My team is the people of the United States of America, and I’m going to fight for that team. Not for the partisans in Washington.”

The Michigan primary results will indicate how effective this line of attack has been in slowing the Santorum surge, or quite possibly bringing it to a halt.

If it is shown to be effective in Michigan, expect a ramp-up ahead of the March 6th Super Tuesday contests in which Mr. Santorum is polling ahead of Mr. Romney in places like Ohio.

The aim is to cast doubt on the claim that Mr. Santorum is a pure, ideological and consistent conservative.

On Monday, Mr. Romney was already trying out a different line of attack against Mr. Santorum.

“It’s time for him to really focus on the economy and I ask who has the experience to get this economy going again? This is what I’ve done my entire life. Rick Santorum has never had a real job in his life. It helps to have a guy who’s had a job.”

How will blue-collar workers vote in Michigan?

The former Pennsylvania senator and grandson of a coal-miner sometimes pitches himself, when he is not emphasizing his social conservative credentials, as ideally suited to win blue-collar voters in battleground states like Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan.

But the latest polling actually shows that among those who care more about the economy than social issues, Mr. Romney is doing better than Mr. Santorum is Michigan. As well, among Republican union households, Mr. Romney is running ahead of his rival.

In the 2008 primary, more than half of Republican voters did not have a college education and 75 per cent earned less than $100,000 a year.

Both Mr. Santorum and Mr. Romney have to show that they can win the support of this key bloc and the competition is intense. On the issue of the government bailout of the Detroit auto industry, both candidates have opposed it in the past and continue to do so.

Mr. Santorum called President Barack Obama “a snob” over the weekend for his focus on the importance of a college education. Not sure that is going to swing non-college educated voters to the Santorum campaign, but it was worth a punt.

The Ohio contest on March 6th will be another test of each candidate’s ability to pull blue collar support, but count on the Michigan primary to set the tone.

An Ohio poll released on Monday shows Mr. Santorum with 36 per cent of likely GOP voters, compared to Mr. Romney with 29 per cent. But here is the kicker: 45 per cent of voters say they may well change their mind.

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