MACKINAC ISLAND, Mich. — Mitt Romney and Rick Perry are the only two Republican presidential candidates who can afford to spend their time and money in states that aren't first on the primary calendar.
That helps explain their appearances Saturday in Michigan, where GOP voters will have their say in 2012, but only after Iowa, New Hampshire and several other states that second-tier contenders must win to survive.
"It's really about these two up here," said Jase Bolger, the speaker of Michigan's House of Representatives.
Compare that with 2007, when the Michigan gathering drew seven presidential candidates.
For Romney, a Michigan native, the event was a homecoming. His father was governor and Romney, set to speak Saturday evening, spent summers on Mackinac as a child at the governor's summer residence.
Perry, the Texas governor, made a glancing reference to his chief rival during a 15-minute address at the Grand Hotel, where photos of former Gov. George Romney hang from the walls.
"''There may be slicker candidates and there might be smoother debaters, but I know what I believe in," he said in between attacks on President Obama's health care law and boasts about his job-creating record in Texas.
His remarks, which offered him the chance to introduce himself to Michigan voters, also were an acknowledgement that his campaign is trying to shake off the perception that he's struggling after a lackluster debate performance Thursday in Florida.
Perry received a warm reception from the crowd that packed the main dining room. He met privately with donors after the event and then some state lawmakers before heading to a fundraiser in Shreveport, La.
"I don't know whether they perceive Mitt Romney to be their hometown guy or not — I think they're looking for a leader," Perry told The Associated Press after speaking to the legislators.
It will be a difficult path for him in Michigan because of Romney's deep ties to the state.
"Support for Romney is really strong," said Bolger, who endorsed Romney last week and is one of more than two dozen state legislators backing the former Massachusetts governor.
Romney held a meeting with those lawmakers as Perry was set to speak at a lunch a few floors below at the hotel. One person arrived wearing a "Romney" button, from George Romney's 1962 campaign for governor.
The docks where the ferries arrive were decorated with several "Romney for President" signs and the island was packed with volunteers handing out campaign literature.
"We're not taking anything for granted," said Rob Macomber, Romney's state director for Michigan. "But obviously there's a lot of good will toward the Romneys here."
Romney stopped by several different Mackinac venues and held a private function with state lawmakers. He was accompanied by his wife, Ann Romney, and several aides.
Perry's debate performance had clearly heartened Romney's associates.
"It's going to happen this time," Ann Romney told Republican National Committeeman Saul Anuzis on her way into the meeting with lawmakers. "Perry in the debate? Shocking," she said.
Romney sought the GOP nomination in 2008, but Arizona Sen. John McCain came out on top. Michigan was the only state that Romney won before he dropped out.
In the debate, Perry's rivals raised questions about his record on immigration, public health and Social Security.4 comments on this story
While Romney and Perry played to the GOP faithful on this resort island in the Great Lakes, their rivals were scattered.
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman was in New Hampshire, where he's staked his candidacy. U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota was busy fundraising as she struggles to remain a relevant force in the race. Businessman Herman Cain, U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania were in Florida, site of a straw poll.
Associated Press writer Philip Elliott in Orlando, Fla., contributed to this report.