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In Michigan, Romney faces challenges in his home state

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Romney (Paul Sancya/AP)

DETROIT— One building away from where Mitt Romney was set to deliver his economic speech today at Ford Field, a cadre of American-made cars sat atop a parking garage here in downtown Detroit each displaying one huge letter perched on a windshield, together spelling out the phrase, "ROMNEY LET DETROIT GO BANKRUPT."

"Today is the day to disown Mitt Romney from being a Michigander!" Gerald Kariem, a local United Auto Workers (UAW) director shouted into a megaphone as he stood surrounded by cheering auto workers waving signs in the sleet and rain.

"Thank you, President Obama!" the crowd happily chanted. UAW members, including featured guest UAW President Bob King, gathered here this morning at a rally organized by the Democratic National Committee and the union to express their displeasure with the former Massachusetts governor for opposing the TARP auto bailout passed under President Obama.

"I feel that my job was saved because of the auto loans," Staci Steward, who has worked for 11 years at Chrysler's Sterling Heights, Mich. plant, told Yahoo News. "I feel like I got a personal connection with us getting the auto loans and surviving." Steward's plant was slated for closure, but following the bailout it has remained open and the company has even recently invested in a new paint shop for the plant. When asked her opinion of Romney's stance on the bailout, which was solidified in his much-publicized 2008 opinion piece for the New York Times entitled "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt," Steward, an Obama supporter, replied: "It disgusts me."

Though today's rally was a staged event organized by Democrats, it was a clear display (especially for skyward photo ops) of the many landmines Romney faces in a state many have marked as a must-win for him due to his deep family ties there. Romney was born and raised in Michigan where his father, former chairman of American Motors Corporation, served as governor from 1963-69, when he ran for president. Romney's mother Lenore Romney also ran for Senate in 1970.

But, despite the home state advantage, polls continue to show former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum overtaking or nearly edging out Romney in Michigan's upcoming Feb. 28 primary.

The tension between the two presumed Michigan frontrunners played out in front of a national audience this week at the CNN debate in Mesa, Ariz., a state which also has its primary on Feb. 28. There, the two men frequently sparred over their records, credentials, and positions in what has become a stunning turnaround for Santorum, who narrowly placed first in Iowa's caucuses Jan. 3, but wasn't declared the winner until weeks later.

Santorum has been riding high ever since his three-state win Feb. 7 in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri, after which polls showed Romney no longer had a lock on his home state. Santorum responded handily, devoting time and resources to cutting Romney down and furthering his own campaign in Michigan.

"Who's on the side of Michigan workers? Not Romney," an announcer says in a new television ad released statewide Friday by Santorum's campaign. "He supported the Wall Street bailouts while turning his back on Michigan workers." Though Santorum also opposes the auto bailout, since arriving in Michigan, the former Pennsylvania senator has cast himself as consistent and Romney as an anti-Michigan hypocrite for supporting the Wall Street bailouts while opposing the auto one. Santorum's general attack line these past two weeks: Romney turned his back on his home state.

Santorum has taken a populist tack in Michigan by launching appeals such as Friday's ad, which are aimed at blue collar workers. Santorum contends his Made-in-the-USA plan would prompt reinvestment in U.S. manufacturing by eliminating taxes for manufacturers and cutting income taxes and federal spending.

Santorum has continued to promote himself as a staunch fiscal and social conservative while Romney struggles to make the case for his conservatism.

Opponents, including Democrats, regularly state that Romney instituted a state health care plan that was used as the model for Obamacare. Romney continually promotes his opposition to Obamacare and routinely blasts the president in his campaign speeches, but questions about how conservative he will be as president continue to dog him in the Republican primary.

In addition to cozying up to Michigan in the past few weeks-- often talking about his love for the state and his childhood memories there-- Romney has been strongly pushing the message that he's the only Washington outsider in the race.

"Rick Went to Washington AND HE NEVER CAME BACK," is the attack banner the Romney campaign uses to send out anti-Santorum missives. "If you liked Newt Gingrich, wait 'til you get to know Rick Santorum," was one line promoted earlier this week.

Santorum served as senator from 1995-2007, Newt Gingrich served as a Georgia congressman for 20 years, which included time as House Speaker, and Ron Paul is currently serving as a Texas congressman for the third time, after first winning election in the late 70s.

Romney's super PAC "Restore Our Future" has also taken aim at Santorum's fiscal conservatism. An announcer for a PAC ad that recently ran in Michigan stated the following:

How did Rick Santorum actually vote? Santorum voted to raise the debt limit five times and for billions in wasteful projects, including the "Bridge to Nowhere." In a single session, Santorum co-sponsored 51 bills to increase spending and zero to cut spending. Santorum even voted to raise his own pay and joined Hillary Clinton to let convicted felons vote. Rick Santorum: Big spender, Washington insider.

Romney has been and will continue to talk up his private sector experience, as he did today at the Detroit Economic Club event at Ford Field. "I don't think I have the best chance I think I have the only chance," to beat President Obama, Romney said in response to a question. He touted his business as key to his potential as a general election candidate.

Polls continue to show Romney and Santorum leading in Michigan, a major reason why Gingrich is largely ignoring the state in favor of campaigning for Super Tuesday votes in states that will vote Mar. 6, including his home state of Georgia. Paul's campaign previously said the congressman was unlikely to campaign in Michigan, but as of Friday afternoon he had four Michigan events planned prior to Tuesday's vote.

More popular Yahoo! News stories:

Romney unveils economic plan in speech at Detroit's Ford Field

New Santorum ad in Michigan focuses on manufacturing and blue-collar workers

A second-half economic comeback for Pontiac, Michigan, a struggling auto town

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