Romney faces challenges in "home state" of Michigan

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks at a campaign rally in Kentwood, Mich., Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2012.
AP Photo/Gerald Herbert
Mitt Romney, Michigan
AP Photo/Gerald Herbert
This article originally appeared on RealClearPolitics.

Following his bruising defeats in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary four years ago, Mitt Romney's hopes for mounting a comeback against John McCain and Mike Huckabee seemed dim when his campaign plane landed in Grand Rapids, Mich., on Jan. 9, 2008.

Over the next week, Romney mentioned at nearly every opportunity his connection to the state in which he was born and raised, repeatedly citing the "thrill" of returning to a place where the "trees are just the right height, almost all of the cars are American-made" and where the locals "know that 'pop' refers to a drink, not a relative."

At just about every campaign stop, he told old stories about the Ramblers that American Motors manufactured under the leadership of his father, George, who went on to serve as governor of Michigan for six years.

Romney paid an emotional visit to the state capitol and paused where his father's body had once lain in state.

In a more lighthearted moment, the former Massachusetts governor brought in front of the cameras Gloria Blazo, his first-grade teacher in the early 1950s, who recalled the days when Willard Mitt Romney went by the name of "Billy."

All of it seemed to work. After starting the week trailing in the polls to McCain, Romney steadily gained ground, the swelling crowds responding to the personal touch that their native son had struggled to convey elsewhere.

"For me, Michigan is personal," Romney said in Traverse City, three days before his nine-point victory, which temporarily revitalized a campaign that fizzled later that month in Florida.

With Romney once more trailing in the Michigan polls, and facing what may again be a do-or-die state for his White House hopes, he apparently has no intention of altering his strategy from four years ago.

"Michigan's been my home, and this is personal," Romney says at the end of a 30-second TV advertisement titled "Growing Up," which began airing statewide this week.

In the ad, old family photos are interspersed with recent video of the candidate driving himself across the state, as he recalls visiting the Detroit auto show with his father.

According to 2008 exit polls, 42 percent of Michigan voters in the GOP primary said Romney's roots in the state were important or somewhat important.

His Michigan backers are once again hopeful that this home-state pedigree and family link to the state's dominant industry will once again lead him to victory.

"There is no question Romney's ties in Michigan are significant and his roots and understanding of our state are deep," said Saul Anuzis, who chaired the candidate's 2008 Michigan campaign and endorsed Romney again last September. "This will help him."

But even as he predicted a second triumph in the state, Anuzis was careful to add a caveat.

"I think those who have spun that this is an easy win are playing the expectations game," he said.

Indeed, Romney's Michigan path will not be easy.

For one thing, voters are now four more years removed from 1966 -- the last time George Romney was elected governor.

Despite the fond memories Romney has conjured of growing up in Michigan, when he last lived there, the Beatles were still on tour and the first moon landing was four years away.

In addition to the hurdle posed by fading memories, actuarial tables make clear that the number of voters who remember George Romney has declined since 2008.

And though the candidate's homes in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Utah and California have been widely publicized as he has become better known nationally, he has not had a residence in Michigan since high school.

According to a survey conducted by Democratic-affiliated Public Policy Polling, only 26 percent of Republicans in the state now consider Romney a Michigander, while 62 percent do not.

Consider also that George Romney's political legacy does not exactly jibe with the current mood of the Republican Party, even if he is viewed fondly among the electorate at large.

"George established an income tax in Michigan and was considered pretty moderate by most standards back then," said Michigan pollster Bernie Porn.

In the pre-Tea Party days of January 2008, the early GOP primary battles were waged in large part over the Iraq war and social issues. But the economy was the top issue in Michigan, where the unemployment rate stood at 7.4 percent, a factor that Romney used to his advantage over McCain, who admitted that economic issues were not his strong suit and who took pride in refusing to pander on jobs.

Romney, in contrast, did everything he could to tout his business credentials and suggested that the government had a role to play in leading the automobile industry toward recovery.

He held a press conference in front of a General Motors factory where hundreds of employees had recently been laid off, gave a wonky and much-hyped speech to the Detroit Economic Club, and accused McCain of engaging in "Washington-style pessimism" by telling Michiganders that not every auto industry job that had been lost in the state would return.

"You hear some say that these are jobs that are just going away and we better get used to it, but where does it stop?" Romney asked during a 2008 stop in Ypsilanti. "Are we going to let the entire automobile industry -- domestic manufacturer automotive industry -- disappear and just say, 'Well that was tough, that's just the way it is.' That's not what I believe."

The state's economic future is once again the top concern in Michigan, but Romney's positioning on the issue was made trickier by a New York Times op-ed he wrote in November 2008. It was headlined, "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt."

In that piece, he argued for a managed bankruptcy for the auto industry, rather than a government bailout, and has since insisted that the rescue package was wrongheaded, despite the industry's pronounced steps toward recovery.

In a May 2010 survey conducted by Bernie Porn's polling firm, EPIC-MRA, 51 percent of Michigan Republicans said that the auto bailout was a good idea, while 43 percent called it a bad idea.

Working in Romney's favor, his Republican rivals also opposed the bailout, and his financial advantage over his opponents could help him make the case to Tea Party-leaning Republicans that he took a principled stand against bigger government in opposing the rescue.

But in a race that has thus far been defined by unpredictable swings of momentum, along with voters' apparent eagerness to defy convention at every turn, Romney will have to reach well beyond his roots in order to mount another come-from-behind victory in Michigan.

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    Scott Conroy is a National Political Reporter for RealClearPolitics and a contributor for CBS News.