TROY, Mich. -- Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum on Saturday took their down-to-the-wire Michigan Republican primary duel to an influential group of conservative activists, a bloc each has to have to eke out a win in the too-close-to-call contest.
Both candidates offered fiery, red-meat appeals -- and stinging criticisms of each other -- before about 1,200 people shoehorned into the San Marino Club in the Detroit suburb of Troy.
In the final weekend of campaigning before Tuesday's Michigan and Arizona primaries, Romney focused on central and southeast Michigan's urban and industrial centers in hopes of pulling ahead of Santorum.
With a Michigan victory, Santorum could solidify his place as a real threat to Romney heading into Super Tuesday, the 10-state sweepstakes March 6. Santorum's victories so far have come in lower-turnout party caucuses.
They spoke hours apart, and each tried to portray himself as the race's most committed conservative. Whoever proves the most convincing here, and throughout the state, will gain an edge in Tuesday's crucial GOP primary. Romney is vying to win the state his father once governed; Santorum is trying to show he can win in a blue-collar, industrial state.
Santorum, the former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, roused the crowd by insisting he has been consistently on the right throughout his life.
"What you see is what you get," he said, "as opposed to what you see today is not what you may get tomorrow."
He proceeded to rip Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, for his past center-right positions and his ties to Wall Street and the Republican establishment.
"I worked my way to the success I have, and I'm proud of it," said Santorum, the son and grandson of Italian immigrants.
He also pushed the "common man" theme hard.
"President [Barack] Obama wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob," Santorum said. "There are good, decent men and women who work hard every day and put their skills to the test that aren't taught by some liberal college professor."
Going to college, Santorum charged, will allow Obama "to remake you in his image."
Romney, appearing a few hours later, started by having his wife, Ann, talk about her family's immigrant roots -- her father was from Wales -- and their path to success. Mitt Romney recalled growing up in the Detroit area. "Lots of stories here. Deep roots here," he said.
He spent much of his talk bashing Obama and Santorum.
"This president is out of ideas. He's out of excuses. In 2012 he's going to be out of office," Romney said. He blasted Santorum for his Senate votes to raise the debt ceiling and for budget legislation that included family planning funds.
Santorum seemed to get a better response, but Romney was well received.
In the audience and the halls, attendees were often circumspect about the two candidates, expressing the same concerns heard throughout this state in recent days. People thought Romney was more electable and felt some pull for him because of his local roots. But they also felt affection for Santorum and his strong social conservative views.
The people at the Troy forum, sponsored by Americans for Prosperity Michigan, a conservative organization, are the kind of local activists candidates badly want.
Many were still not entirely sure who they'll vote for, a signal that although polls show Romney with a slight lead, it's still anyone's race.
"I like Mitt's economic strength, but I like Santorum's slightly more conservative views," said Stephen Lord, a Bloomfield Hills, Mich., home remodeler.
The key message Saturday: A lot of folks are still making up their minds.
A Gallup tracking poll released Saturday showed Santorum slipping since last week into a virtual tie nationwide, with Santorum at 31 percent and Romney at 30 percent. Recent polls in Michigan show a dead heat, while Romney is leading in Arizona.
This report includes material from The Associated Press and The Washington Post.