LIVONIA, Michigan — A rich guy with a tin ear and a culture war extremist: Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum have reinforced these unflattering narratives as the battle for the Republican nomination heats up in Michigan.
Romney’s problems connecting to working class voters hit the national media again after he told a reporter at the Daytona 500 Sunday that while he doesn’t follow car racing closely, “I have some great friends who are NASCAR team owners.”
It came a day after Romney told a crowd in hard-hit Detroit that his wife drives “a couple Cadillacs” — costly luxury cars that are out of reach for most Americans.
Santorum, meanwhile, took heat for calling President Barack Obama a “snob” because he wants everyone to go to college and for saying that watching beloved former president John F. Kennedy talk about the separation of church and state makes him want to “throw up.”
The increasingly negative and gaffe-ridden race to become the Republican standard-bearer is providing ample fodder for Obama as he prepares for the November 6 election amid an improving economy and rising job approval ratings.
It has also pushed Romney into the murky culture war waters — which could hurt Republican chances of winning over independents in the general election — as he woos the party’s conservative base.
If Romney is able to win a decisive victory in Michigan and Arizona on Tuesday — and again next week when 10 states hold nominating contests on Super Tuesday — he may have time to reset voter perceptions and shift back to center.
But with polls showing that Santorum could pull off another win in Romney’s home state of Michigan — giving the former Pennsylvania senator critical momentum going into Super Tuesday — the Republican primary could drag on until the August convention.
And with an unprecedented amount of money unleashed thanks to changes in campaign finance laws, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul could continue to divide the electorate by staying in the race despite their low polling numbers.
“In a three or four way race, the possibility of keeping Romney from a majority of the delegates raises the prospect of a brokered convention,” said Michael Traugott, a political expert at the University of Michigan.
The Republican presidential hopefuls are focusing on divisive cultural and social issues because only about 10 percent of the electorate participates in primaries — and social conservatives drive that vote, he said.
Recent expressions of outrage over Obama’s plan to require employers to provide birth control as part of their health insurance coverage, for instance, may stir up the base, but it could hurt in November.
“It will put off independents and it will put off women who are a majority of the electorate, and that is the main reason that the leadership of the Republican Party is so concerned about this turn of events,” Traugott told AFP.
“It’s possible that by the general election whoever the nominee is could be focusing effectively on economic issues, but they still are going to have to answer to the statements they’re making now.”
Santorum on Monday defended his conservative positions and insisted that it won’t hurt him in a match-up against Obama.
“In 1980, the pundits were saying that Ronald Reagan was an albatross, that he was too conservative,” he said at a campaign event in Livonia, Michigan.
“They mocked the values that built this country. But we’re past that.”
The question of the next few weeks is whether Republican primary voters make their choices based on who has the best chance to win or who “can articulate the most conservative positions on social issues,” said Danny Hayes, a political expert at American University.
“The more that they’re focused on electability and who can beat Obama the more likely it is that Romney’s going to win,” he said in a telephone interview.
“While Romney isn’t a common man, the evidence shows that’s less of a problem than Santorum’s ideological positioning which is pretty far to the right of independents and swing voters in the general electorate.”