February 26, 2012 / 7:29 PM / 6 years ago

Romney defends wealth, Santorum touts conservatism

TRAVERSE CITY, Michigan (Reuters) - In a tight race to win the Michigan primary, U.S. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney strongly defended his wealth on Sunday and challenged voters to support someone else if they did not like his success.

Romney is worth an estimated $250 million and has been accused of being out of touch with most Americans’ economic struggles.

The issue could be crucial in Tuesday’s vote in Michigan, the state where Romney grew up but faces a tough fight after opposing President Barack Obama’s bailout of the U.S. auto industry. Romney’s main rival in the state is Rick Santorum, who has presented himself as a blue-collar Republican.

Romney stood by his remark on Friday that his wife drives “a couple of Cadillacs.” It was a reminder of the challenges he faces in trying to win over voters struggling with the economic downturn and high unemployment.

“I‘m not perfect. I just am who I am,” Romney said on “Fox News Sunday,” when asked about the comment.

“We have a car that we have in California. And we got a car that we have back in Boston, where our other home is. That’s just the way it is,” the former private equity executive said.

“If people think there’s something wrong with being successful in America, then they better vote for the other guy. Because I’ve been extraordinarily successful, and I want to use that success and that know-how to help the American people.”

Romney has faced an unexpectedly tough fight to win the primary in Michigan, the birthplace of the U.S. auto industry and the state where his father was governor in the 1960s. An average of polling data by RealClearPolitics showed him with just a 2-point lead there over Santorum.

Richard Marr of Traverse City said he was still deciding whom he’d support. He did not like Romney’s record in Massachusetts, especially his healthcare law, but said Santorum’s stress on social issues “would be a distraction.”

“He (Romney) has a great business record, but when he was governor, he was ... not conservative at all,” Marr said. “I‘m looking at Santorum as an alternative to that predicament.”

Romney is projected to beat Santorum handily in Arizona, which also holds a primary on Tuesday.

Santorum leads Romney in national polls, but surveys also show a majority of Republicans give Romney a better chance of defeating Obama in the general election on November 6 than the former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, best known for his strong socially conservative positions like opposing gay marriage.

Senior Republicans took to the Sunday TV talk shows to try to help Romney over the line in Michigan.

“Governor Romney is a better candidate because of the primary process. He is getting better and better,” Senator Lindsey Graham said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

SANTORUM ATTACKS KENNEDY

Santorum kept up his tough social conservative message, with attacks on Obama and former President John F. Kennedy.

Santorum called Obama a “snob” on Friday for wanting to send Americans to college - where he said they would be indoctrinated by liberal professors. Santorum also said Obama’s goal “devalues the tremendous work” of those who do not attend universities.

“We have some real problems at our college campuses with political correctness, with an ideology that is forced upon people who, you know, who may not agree with the politically correct left doctrine,” Santorum said on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.”

“And one of the things that I’ve spoken out on - and will continue to speak out - is to make sure that conservative and more mainstream, common-sense conservative principles that have made this country great are reflected in our college courses and with college professors. And at many, many, and I would argue most institutions in this country, that simply isn’t the case.”

Santorum, who hopes to become the second Roman Catholic U.S. president, also said a 1960 speech on religion by Kennedy, the first, had made him want “to throw up.”

Kennedy said religion and politics should be kept separate, which Santorum called an “absolutist doctrine” that he rejected. “I don’t believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute,” he said on ABC.

“To say that people of faith have no role in the public square? You bet that makes you throw up,” Santorum said.

Both Romney and Santorum worked to broaden their support on Sunday at the Daytona 500 in Florida, the big season opener to the U.S. NASCAR racing season. Romney greeted fans and met with drivers before the race, but left for Michigan before the start. Santorum did not attend, but his campaign is sponsoring a car.

Just as Romney strolled out onto the track for photos and handshakes, the number 26 car, emblazoned with ‘Santorum 2012’ moved slowly past him into the pit lane.

Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, established as an antagonist to Obama after a public finger-pointing confrontation with him, endorsed Romney’s bid for the presidency on Sunday.

It was not clear whether the endorsement would boost Romney, who has an 11-point poll lead in Arizona. And Democrats, with an eye to drawing Hispanic support in November if Romney is the nominee, have pointed to Brewer’s signing of a tough state law intended to crack down on illegal immigration from Mexico.

The law requires police to check the immigration status of anyone they detain and suspect of being in the country illegally. The Arizona law is seen by many as specifically targeting Latinos.

The two other Republican candidates, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul, who trail Santorum and Romney in polls, were campaigning in Georgia and Michigan.

Additional reporting by Simon Evans in Daytona Beach, Tom Ferraro, Will Dunham and Patricia Zengerle in Washington, Writing by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Alistair Bell and Christopher Wilson

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