Rasmussen in MI: Opening for a surprise?

Republicans have seven contests in February, two of which fall on the last day of the month and which come just seven days before Super Tuesday, when ten states simultaneously go to the polls in the presidential sweepstakes.  Arizona and Michigan are the final opportunities to have game-changing moments in votes that could swing momentum in a short period of time.  A new poll by Rasmussen in Michigan suggests that Newt Gingrich — or Rick Santorum — might have an opportunity to generate just that kind of result:

Mitt Romney, coming off his big win in the Florida Primary on Tuesday, is the clear front-runner in the first Rasmussen Reports telephone survey of the Republican presidential race in his home state of Michigan. Voters in this hard hit state see Romney as the much better choice to manage the economy. The Michigan Republican Primary is on February 28.

Romney earns 38% support from Likely Republican Primary Voters in Michigan, with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich a distant second with 23% of the vote. Seventeen percent (17%) prefer former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum, and nearly as many (14%) favor Texas Congressman Ron Paul. One percent (1%) like some other candidate in the race, and six percent (6%) are undecided.

Yes, Romney’s leading by double digits in this poll, so it’s not bad news — but Michigan should be a stronger state for Romney.  His father was a popular governor, and Romney got about 39% of the vote in the 2008 primary closer to the beginning of that cycle, beating John McCain by nine points and Mike Huckabee by 23.  At least in this poll, it doesn’t appear that Romney has gotten any stronger, and the blowout win in Florida doesn’t seem to be influencing Michigan voters.

This looks like an opening for one of the two conservative alternatives to get their potential game-changer.  Arizona certainly doesn’t; Romney has a 24-point lead and almost half of the voters at 48%.  For that reason, although the February 22nd debate will be in Arizona, expect the candidates to talk a lot about Michigan and blue-collar, Reagan Democrat issues.  The question will be which of the two can make that case best and hope to steal a big prize from Romney, weakening him before Super Tuesday.

Santorum has better favorability than Gingrich, although that’s hardly news by now, and in Michigan the difference is a little narrower: 65/27 and 55/44, respectively.  The most important issues to Michigan voters are the economy (50%) and fiscal issues (23%), and Gingrich has a ten-point lead over Santorum on handling the economy (21/11), although Romney has a wide lead over both (43%).  Santorum does much better on social issues than Gingrich (27/16, with Romney at 32%) but only 6% of likely voters believe that to be the most important issues in the election.  Santorum does have an opening on the auto bailouts, of which a majority of likely voters disapprove by a wide margin, 35/54, and his character number is the best in the field at 40%, against 30% for Romney and 6% for Gingrich.

Both Gingrich and Santorum will undoubtedly spend time in both Arizona and Michigan in the two-week gap between the other contests in February and those two primaries.  Don’t be surprised to see them spending most of it it Michigan, though, and I’d suspect that Santorum especially might use the strategy with which he succeeded in Iowa to try to turn out the vote and seek a miracle.