By Maeve Reston, Los Angeles Times –
ROCKFORD, Mich. — In a campaign that has been consumed in recent days by discussion of social issues, Mitt Romney tried to turn voters’ attention back to the economy Monday — arguing on the eve of the Michigan primary that he was the only Republican with the credentials to deal with the nation’s financial troubles.
As Rick Santorum has surged in the polls, there has been increasing attention to some of his controversial comments about gay marriage, birth control and his rejection of an absolute separation of church and state. In an interview on Sunday, the former Pennsylvania senator said John F. Kennedy’s 1960 speech on that topic made him want to “throw up.” And Romney, in an attempt to cut into Santorum’s support, has been touting his own opposition to gay marriage and abortion as governor of Massachusetts.
But on Monday at a thriving manufacturing company in Rockford, Romney alluded to Santorum’s op-ed in Monday morning’s Wall Street Journal outlining his tax and regulatory policies. Romney said he was glad Santorum “recognizes this has got to be a campaign about the economy.”
“It’s time for him to really focus on the economy — and for you to all say, ‘OK, if the economy is going to be the issue we focus on, who has the experience to actually get this economy going again?’ … Who’s spent some time in the real economy?” Romney said at Byrne Electrical Specialists Inc., which manufactures components that fit into furniture such as conference table phones and dataports.
“I’ve spent 25 years in business,” said Romney, who headed the private equity and venture capital firm Bain Capital. “I understand why jobs go, why they come. I understand what happens to corporate profit; where it goes if the government takes it. This is what I’ve done throughout my life.”
“Sen. Santorum is a nice guy, but he’s never had a job in the private sector,” the former Massachusetts governor continued. “He’s worked as a lobbyist. He’s worked as an elected official. That’s fine. But if the issue of the day is the economy, I think to create jobs it helps to have a guy as president who’s had a job, and I have.”
Santorum, speaking in Livonia, a suburb just outside Detroit, spent about half his time on the economy and the other half on social issues, but the crowd — which included members of two local chambers of commerce — was far more fired up on social issues.
Romney has faced a stiff challenge from Santorum in Michigan, the state where Romney grew up and his father was a three-term governor. Santorum surprised the political establishment by leading Romney in the polls here, as recently as last week. After a barrage of negative ads from Romney’s allies pounding Santorum, the race has tightened significantly. Santorum led Romney 37 percent to 35 percent in a new survey by the Republican firm Mitchell Research & Communications — putting the race within a statistical margin of error.
Pollster Steve Mitchell told the Los Angeles Times that Santorum had regained support among evangelical Christians and voters affiliated with the tea party. But Santorum’s effort has been far outmatched by Romney’s ground organization in Michigan, which has helped him build up a lead among absentee voters.