KALAMAZOO, Mich. (AP) -- Losing the Michigan primary would strip the last of the varnish off the image that Mitt Romney is the inevitable GOP nominee for president and commit him to the long march he says he is prepared to wage.
While a Rick Santorum victory next week would be bad for Romney -- a public-relations nightmare for a native son of Michigan -- it would mean little to the campaign that still has more money than any other and remains better organized to compete to the end.
"There is no doubt that if he loses Michigan, perception-wise, the wheels come off the wagon," said Greg McNeely, a former Michigan Republican Party director, now unaffiliated with any of the presidential campaigns. "Can he come back? Absolutely. But it destroys the inevitability perception that has been built around the campaign."
Santorum has shot up in the polls here and even leads Romney in some as he rides a wave of momentum from winning all three Feb. 7 contests, including the Colorado caucuses that Romney won during his 2008 campaign.
Romney is responding to the Santorum threat by employing a familiar strategy: attacking his opponent's credibility. He did just that in vanquishing former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in Iowa and Florida.
On Friday, at a stop at a suburban Detroit restaurant, Romney listed positions Santorum said he had taken to support his party even though they defied his principles. Such attacks underscore the urgency of Romney's effort to blunt Santorum's challenge, as do the heavy concentration of television ads Romney is airing and the three campaign events he plans in Michigan on Saturday.
Yet, there's a lighter touch at times. Romney reminded an audience of business leaders in Detroit on Friday of his boyhood in Michigan, tossing out the name of the Detroit hospital where he was born and the school where he attended kindergarten. He's airing a television ad featuring his father, a former Michigan governor and car executive.
Even more, he offered a prescription for the long-term revival of the all-important automotive industry, calling for union concessions and less aggressive emissions standards. Those proposals might help soften any hard feelings caused by Romney's opposition to the federal bailout of the auto industry.
"I grew up with the Romney name. My parents were big Romney fans," said Ken Leonardi, owner of a restaurant in Mount Clemens, where Romney greeted several dozen supporters.
The restaurant, The Mitt, wasn't named for Romney but for the mitten shape of Michigan, although Leonardi is a Romney supporter.
"I'm planning on winning, by the way," Romney told the group.
And he may. Romney has clawed to near even with Santorum this week.
Even if Santorum beats Romney, Romney will emerge with a healthy share of delegates to add to his lead in the count, never mind fundraising and campaign organization in a race that was designed to carry into the spring.
And there is the chance for a split decision if Romney wins the popular vote but Santorum emerges with more delegates. Most of the state's 30 delegates are awarded two at a time to the winner in each of the state's 14 congressional districts.
Republican National Committee members in 2010 voted to require states holding their contests in March to award delegates based on the proportion of the vote they received, not winner take all.
Still, Romney is far better organized in key March 6 states such as Ohio and Southern bastions Georgia and Tennessee, once thought to be safe for Gingrich.
Santorum could be in for a shock if he loses Michigan, much like Gingrich did after shooting to the top of the polls in Florida after winning the South Carolina primary. He then lost Florida and struggled at fundraising afterward.
Michigan has a reputation for at times bucking the national trend, including Romney's victory over the eventual nominee, John McCain, four years ago. Similarly, then-Michigan Gov. John Engler declared in 2000 the state would be George W. Bush's firewall, only to have McCain win.