Less than a month ago, it seemed inconceivable that Mitt Romney would have to fight for his political life in his home state of Michigan.
But fast-moving economic changes, the candidate's verbal stumbles and event venue blunders, and the ascent of flamethrower social conservative Rick Santorum have left Romney sweating to eke out a win Tuesday in Michigan's Republican presidential primary, where the latest polls show a tight race.
"It's a sign that nothing is certain," says Hank Choate, a Romney supporter and farmer who is chairman of the Jackson County, Mich., Republican Party. "There's a lot of ebb and flow in this whole process."
Romney's inability to capitalize on the advantages of a state where his father served as governor and headed an auto company marks the latest, but perhaps most embarrassing, turning point in his tumultuous quest to secure the GOP nomination.
His continued opposition to government loans in 2009 that helped GM and Chrysler, two of the state's engines of employment, roar back from Chapter 11 bankruptcy have hurt him less with his party faithful than the other reality that has dogged Romney since the presidential contests began in January.
"He has the same problem here that he has everywhere else — the anybody-but-Romney faction in the Republican Party," says Michigan-based pollster Scott Mitchell of Mitchell Research & Communications.
Romney's opposition to the auto loans? That actually sits well with most Republican primary voters, Mitchell says, even with the growing number who say they believe Michigan's economy is improving.
Betty Kay Price, 64, whose husband lost his job in the downturn, is just one example.
A self-described "independent conservative," she planned to vote for Santorum or Romney and says it's "very dangerous for the government to be involved in peoples' businesses — you get the wrong person and they take over."
"How many companies can you bail out?" she said in a recent interview. "We're trillions of dollars in debt. I think people aren't grasping what that meant."
While Romney's opposition to government loans that allowed the two auto companies to reorganize may help him in the primary, others see his hard-line, anti-union position handing the state to President Obama in the general election. (Romney has gone so far as to assert that Obama in the bailout "gave the [auto] companies to the UAW," a claim the fact-checking website PolitiFact.com has rated "false.")
This dynamic has not gone unnoticed by Democrats: Obama is set to address UAW workers Tuesday morning.
It's not an exaggeration to say, as Democrats have repeatedly, that at least 1.4 million jobs were saved in Michigan because of the bailout, says Bill Rayl, executive director of the Jackson Area Manufacturers Association.
The area, he said, lost around 100 small manufacturing companies, most tied to the auto industry, before the government stepped in with loans to save two of the big three auto companies.
"There are a lot of folks in the manufacturing community that fundamentally agree with Romney that that's not the role of government," Rayl said in a recent interview. "But there was a huge sigh of relief when this went through."
Bernie Porn of the Lansing-based survey research firm EPIC-MRA says the highest support for the auto loans is among Democrats, but support among independent voters is almost as great.
"The auto industry turnaround has been significant, and that has been a big positive for Obama," Porn says. "Opposing the bailout will be a big negative for Romney in a general election."
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, who has endorsed Romney, supported the bailout. During an appearance Sunday on ABC's This Week, Snyder said the bailout is working, though "alternate scenarios could have worked, also."
"The point is ... that is history," Snyder said, "and the important part is it was successful, and we're moving along, creating jobs."
A recent survey by EPIC-MRA of likely GOP primary voters in Michigan found that they most liked Romney's business success, and disliked his changing stands on issues. Santorum was most admired for his "religion, morality and family values," but was disliked most for his positions on social issues, which voters said were too extreme.
Fifty-six percent of those surveyed said they believe Romney will be the party's eventual nominee. But when asked if they are satisfied with their presidential choices, 51 percent said yes, and 46 percent said no.
Romney, who won the state's primary during his 2008 presidential bid, had a 2-to-1 statewide lead over his three remaining rivals — Newt Gingrich, Santorum and Ron Paul — in Mitchell's Feb. 7 poll.
Mitchell's latest survey with Rosetta Stone Communications has Romney at 37 percent, Santorum at 36, and Paul and Gingrich in single digits.
"There has been huge volatility," said Mitchell, who had been convinced that Romney's enormous war chest and his state organization would ensure his win.
For Romney, the shift in momentum may have come not from polishing his message or connecting with voters, but from his chief foe's own stumbles.
Santorum has been criticized for his assertion that Obama is a "snob" for saying high school graduates should go to college. He also took flak for suggesting that President John F. Kennedy's seminal speech on the separation of church and state made him "want to throw up."
In 2008, Romney won the Michigan primary with nearly 39 percent of the vote, besting eventual nominee Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who got close to 30 percent. The state awards delegates proportionally, based on the results in each of its congressional districts.
Romney took away 24 delegates in 2008, McCain got five, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee was awarded one.
The proportional distribution of delegates will make it difficult for the favorite son to claim a real win, much less momentum, if the race with Santorum turns out as close as polls indicate.
Romney's hope going forward, says Mitchell, the pollster, is that Gingrich and Paul stay in the mix.
"The more people who are in the race," he says, "the better it is for Romney."