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Romney's Struggle to Make Michigan About the Economy

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Michigan's primary election next Tuesday is about jobs and the economy and Mitt Romney is losing in his own backyard.

The Republican presidential hopeful unveiled his tax plan on Wednesday and then geared his debate message that night towards jobs and the economy -- issues that have driven the statewide conversation in Michigan since the 2008 financial crisis.

"America is not seeing robust economic growth because such growth is impossible in the policy environment created by President Obama," Romney said Wednesday in a statement on his tax plan.

Romney's "bold, pro-growth tax cut proposal" seems like a presidential step for a presumed nominee, but he finds himself in a bitter battle to win the state where his father was governor and where he grew up.

Rick Santorum's campaign officially dropped into Michigan last week and stormed to the top of the polls. He has since cooled down, but this is a state Romney was firmly winning before Feb. 7 by 15 percentage points.

"I realize that Michigan is a big deal right now for Romney, and, quite frankly it should have been a slam dunk," said Barbara VanSyckel, Macomb County GOP chairwoman. Part of the reason Romney has struggled, VanSyckel said, could be down to Santorum's momentum out of his Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri victories.

Santorum's campaign decided to push a hybrid message of social issues and the economy ahead of Super Tuesday, March 6, and it seems to have resonated with voters in Michigan.

In Macomb County, for instance, Santorum spoke to a crowd of about 1,000 people -- only 300 were expected. VanSyckel said a large number of attendees happened to be part of the two tea party groups from the area, and that most of them came to hear Santorum's message on religious freedom.

Part of Santorum's surge could be circumstantial. President Obama's contraceptive mandate sparked outrage among conservatives, First Amendment hawks and persons of faith. Critics have hit the former Pennsylvania senator in the past for his opposition to contraceptives as archaic, but he has used the platform to directly say that Obama is someone who has challenged freedom of speech and religion.

Santorum's wheelhouse often comes back to social issues as he has constantly referenced a relatively conservative congressional voting record to connect with evangelicals. But Santorum has expanded his reach in recent weeks to more tea party supporters by arguing the freedom of speech and freedom of religion angle.

Which leads one to wonder if Santorum has ridden a temporary pivot of voter interest to Obama's controversial mandate.

"He's dropped back a little bit in the polls the last couple days because of the ads that Romney's playing now," said Dennis Pittman, Oakland County GOP executive director. "Santorum's being characterized for his 16 years as a representative and a senator raising taxes multiple times, raising the debt ceiling multiple times -- if you spend 16 years in Congress you're going to take some votes that are going to come back to haunt you, and Romney's being very effective at making sure everybody knows what his record is."