WASHINGTON – Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, battling furiously for the most conservative perch before the critical Michigan primary vote on Tuesday, also are looking just over the horizon to a bonanza of delegates in the 10 state nominating contests just a week later.
Romney and Santorum are virtually tied heading into the critical Michigan vote, where the outcome could further boost Romney's tenuous front-runner position or upend the race for the party's nomination to challenge President Barack Obama in November. Michigan votes on the same day as Arizona, where polls show Romney with a clear lead.
The Michigan showdown will be a warmup to the one looming March 6 in neighboring Ohio, one of the 10 states that hold nominating contests on what is known as Super Tuesday.
Santorum, who is banking on a move to the hard right, called Obama a "snob" over the weekend for promoting higher education for all young Americans who want to continue their education.
"President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob," Santorum said. "There are good decent men and women who go out and work hard every day and put their skills to test that aren't taught by some liberal college professor to try to indoctrinate them. Oh, I understand why he wants you to go to college -- he wants to remake you in his image."
Speaking at the White House to Democratic governors on Monday, Obama took up the education issue but did not mention Santorum. He said education funding is critical if the U.S. is to remain competitive with other nations, saying that other countries are "doubling down" on education funding.
Santorum also played again to conservative Christian Republicans on Monday. He said Obama had turned freedom of religion "on its head."
"I'm for separation of church and state. The state has no business telling the church what to do," Santorum said in a speech to a business organization in suburban Detroit.
Romney, meanwhile, shifted his line of attack from the cultural issues and conservative rhetoric he used over the weekend and instead insisted that Santorum doesn't know how to create jobs.
"I understand why jobs go, why they come, I understand what happens to corporate profit, where it goes if the government takes it," Romney told a crowd.
Romney currently leads in the race to amass the most delegates with 123. Santorum has 72, while former Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich and Texas Rep. Ron Paul have 32 and 19, respectively. The totals include endorsements from Republican National Committee members who will automatically attend the party's national convention and can support any candidate they choose.
A candidate needs 1,144 delegates to secure the nomination.
Both Arizona and Michigan each lost half their delegates for defying the national Republican party by holding their votes before March 6.
The winner in Arizona will take all 29 of the state's delegates. But Michigan will divide its 30 delegates by giving two to the winner of each of the 14 congressional districts in the state. The final two delegates are awarded in proportion to the statewide vote, probably to the top two candidates, if both get more than 25 percent of the vote.
Washington state holds caucuses on Saturday, and 40 delegates are at stake. On Super Tuesday, 419 delegates are up for grabs.
The vote in Michigan on Tuesday will test former Pennsylvania senator Santorum's far-right message on social issues and determine how badly Romney has damaged his chances in his native state by continuing to insist that Obama was wrong to bail out the U.S. auto industry, the heart of the state's ailing industrial base.
The auto giants General Motors and Chrysler Corp. have come roaring back from near-collapse after a huge infusion of federal money, managed bankruptcy and wrenching reorganization. Romney's opposition to that Obama program has hurt him in Michigan, where even the Republican governor and GM chief, also a Republican, flatly disagree with Romney.
Polls show Obama with a double-digit lead over both Romney and Santorum in the Midwestern state.
As the Republicans battle for the nomination, all of them now trail Obama in national polls. The president has seen his approval ratings improve in tandem with signs that the struggling U.S. economy is finally on the way toward a recovery from the Great Recession of 2007-2009.