GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. - Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney avoided a potentially devastating political defeat in his home state of Michigan on Tuesday, fending off an unexpected challenge from fierce social conservative Rick Santorum that had the Republican establishment in a state of full-fledged panic.

Romney won 41 per cent of the vote, according to early, unofficial results. Santorum was four percentage points behind him with 37 per cent.

The former Massachusetts governor also handily won Arizona, which held its winner-takes-all primary on Tuesday as well.

Arizona has almost as many delegates as Michigan -- 29 to Michigan's 30 -- but success there was not considered as symbolically important to Romney's campaign as victory in his home state, even though he walked away from the Grand Canyon State with more delegates.

That's because Michigan's primary rewards delegates based on results, meaning Santorum will leave the state with at least some delegates in advance of so-called Super Tuesday next week.

While Romney's campaign breathed a serious sigh of relief as the results became known in Michigan on Tuesday night, the candidate was expected to coast to victory in the state less than a month ago.

Romney's father, after all, was a longtime auto industry executive and also a popular Michigan governor in the 1960s. The family still has a cottage across the Canada-U.S. border near Grand Bend, Ont.

Santorum, who's spent the last two weeks on the campaign trail cranking up the heat on the nation's ever-percolating culture wars, won a trio of Midwest nominating contests in Missouri, Colorado and Minnesota on Feb. 7. He then rode a wave of momentum into Michigan and was ahead of Romney in the polls for some time.

The well-heeled Romney's victory signals he can, in fact, win over the blue-collar workers who make up a significant bloc of voters in the crucial Midwest swing states. Exit data suggested a large portion of the Michigan electorate on Tuesday was blue-collar.

Santorum's strong performance, however, has proven he too is capable of appealing to those same voters. A batch of new polls, however, suggest President Barack Obama is on track to win Michigan in November as the U.S. economy improves.

Obama, for his part, waded into Republican primary politics earlier Tuesday in a triumphant appearance at a United Auto Workers conference in Washington. He called assertions by Republican candidates that union members profited from the auto industry bailouts in 2008 as "a load of you know what."

Bob King, the president of the UAW, lauded the president as "the champion of all workers" who "saved our jobs and saved our industry." That prompted the crowd of about 1,7000 UAW workers to chant: "Four more years!"

Romney's two-state win, meantime, will likely ward off a renewed scramble by the Republican establishment to find a "white knight" to sweep in and rally the party's base in the decisive manner Romney has failed to achieve.

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie are among those who have already been approached; they've said they're not interested. Romney, too, dismissed such talk on Tuesday, saying a brokered convention was not in the cards.

Ten states hold nominating contests on Super Tuesday next week, including the delegate-rich crown jewels of Ohio and Georgia. Santorum's atop the polls in Ohio while Newt Gingrich is ahead of the pack in Georgia.

Romney's win in Michigan came after a bare-knuckled brawl with Santorum over the past two weeks that raged on right until the 11th hour.

Even as voters headed to the polls earlier Tuesday, Romney assailed Santorum for a robocall on the eve of the primary that urged Democrats to vote for him. Michigan has an open nominating contest; anyone, of any party affiliation, can cast a ballot.

"It's outrageous and disgusting; a terrible dirty trick," Romney said on Fox.

"It's outrageous to see Rick Santorum team up with the Obama people and go out after union labour in Detroit and try to get them to vote against me. Look, we don't want Democrats deciding who our nominee is going to be, we want Republicans deciding who our nominee is going to be."

Exit polls suggested about 10 per cent of those casting ballots in Michigan were indeed Democrats who voted overwhelmingly for Santorum, believing Romney poses a much greater threat to Obama in November.

Santorum's robocall chastised Romney for being against the auto industry bailouts even though the former Pennsylvania senator himself was also opposed to the federal government's rescue of the big automakers in 2008.

Santorum has defended the robocall, saying he'd need Democratic votes in order to defeat Obama in November. He also suggested Romney was a hypocrite.

"When he runs a robocall of my voice from four years ago saying good things about him, that's not a low moment, and when I run a call basically calling Democrats who are eligible to vote here to come and vote for us, that's a low?" Santorum said.

At a rare news conference on Tuesday, Romney acknowledged that he'd made mistakes during his campaign but added he wasn't prepared to contort himself politically to win votes.

"It's very easy to excite the base with incendiary comments," Romney said in an indirect reference to Santorum.

"We've seen throughout the campaign that if you're willing to say really outrageous things that are accusatory and attacking President Obama, (then) you're going to jump up in the polls. You know, I'm not willing to light my hair on fire to try and get support. I am who I am."

Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, won fans among the Republican base in Michigan not just with his far-right stances on social issues, but also his proposals to rebuild the manufacturing base in the blue-collar state hit hard by tough economic times.

He's repeatedly described himself as a working-class son and grandson of Italian immigrants, reminding voters that he grew up in a steel town and that his grandfather was a coal miner.

Romney challenged Santorum's economic gravitas at the news conference in Grand Rapids.

"What is most undistinguished in his campaign is his lack of understanding of the economy," he said. "I think he is an economic lightweight. I don't think he understands the process of job creating."

Republican primary voters nationwide remain bitterly divided on what candidate they want to take on Obama.

As Santorum fires up the socially conservative base of the party with his controversial positions on abortion, birth control, working women, the separation of church and state and the "snobbery" of Obama for advocating college for Americans, the Republican establishment fears he'd be annihilated in a general election.

In his concession speech on Tuesday, Santorum appeared to be pedalling back some of those comments, pointing out that his wife was a working mother and his mother attended college.

Romney, meantime, is viewed with suspicion by many Republicans who doubt his conservative bona fides.

But polls have long suggested he has the best chance to beat Obama in November. While he retains that distinction in most recent polls, his numbers against the president in a hypothetical matchup have been slipping over the past several weeks.