TAYLOR, Mich. It's all about the economy here for Michigan native Mitt Romney, who's battling for his first major victory on the presidential campaign trail in the state's GOP primary Tuesday by promising to jump-start the troubled auto industry.
"I remember when I was growing up here, Detroit, Michigan, was the pride of America and the envy of the world. This was the place for great cars," Romney told several hundred Republicans gathered at a senior center in this Detroit suburb Sunday evening to hear about their party's candidates.
Now, though, the state is suffering the worst unemployment rate in the nation and, Romney said, needs a president who'll "actually do something to strengthen Michigan."
As the crowd chanted, "Mitt, Mitt, Mitt," he said he would unveil a detailed new economic plan today at the Detroit Economic Club focused on easing high health-care costs and other burdens on the auto industry.
That plan, along with a stop at the North American International Auto Show, are aimed at showing Michiganders that he's the candidate focused on improving their financial future.
"I'm going to fight to make sure we get every job we can," Romney said, promising he was "not going to rest until Michigan is back. I'll tell you that."
Romney is trying to make his own comeback here, after losing Iowa to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee on Jan. 3 and, five days later, New Hampshire to Arizona Sen. John McCain. Despite Romney's strong ties to Michigan including a father, George Romney, who ran American Motors and served three terms as governor polls show the race between Romney and McCain is just too close to call.
So Romney is reminding voters here of his Michigan roots, as well as his experience turning around troubled entities as a successful venture capitalist in Boston and as the head of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. He has said repeatedly, including on CBS' "Face the Nation" Sunday, that McCain and other Washington politicians are too pessimistic about reviving Michigan's auto industry.
Rebecca Yawney, who came from a town outside of Ann Arbor to hear Romney speak Sunday, said she appreciated his attitude.
"We feel like Michigan really needs his optimism about our economy," Yawney said as she and her husband, Matt, kept an eye on their three young children during the senior center event. "I was just imagining McCain taking over the Olympics and saying, 'Well, it's all over. Everybody go home."'
Retiree Jim Allinson said he was old enough to have voted for Romney's father in the 1960s, but wasn't interested in politics then. Michigan's economic struggles have changed that, Allinson said, and he likes what he's hearing from Romney. "Because he grew up here, I believe he's in touch with what's happening."
Romney's ability to connect with the concerns of voters dealing with difficult times could be key to turning around his own political fortunes. Even before the primary season started, some pundits were criticizing him as seeming too perfect to be accepted by the electorate.
"Voters like to believe candidates can empathize with them," Jeffrey Berry, a political science professor at Tufts University in Boston, said. Citing former President Bill Clinton's ability to assure Americans he could feel their pain, Berry said, "I don't believe anybody believes Mitt Romney can feel their pain."
Why? "Romney has a plasticity about him," Berry said. "His life is one that's hard to relate to. He's movie-star handsome, has a beautiful wife. ... He has vast wealth and never a hair out of place. He just seems to have lived a charmed life."
Kelly Patterson, director of Brigham Young University's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, said no matter what happens in Michigan, Romney can still be a contender on Feb. 5. The so-called "Super Duper" Tuesday is when more than 20 states, including California, New York and Utah, will help choose their party's presidential nominee.
"Most of the delegates are going to be awarded Feb. 5. Just as long as you have significant organization, money and volunteers, you can be competitive in those states," Patterson said. "It helps if you have the veneer of being a winner, but if you don't have the wins you can still contest these other races and maybe wait for the dynamics to change."
Patterson said one factor in Romney's favor despite his early losses is the unusual primary season for 2008. Voters began caucusing and casting ballots earlier than ever this year and by Feb. 5, enough states will have participated to possibly settle the Republican and Democratic nominees.
"Nobody knows what this compressed primary season is going to be like," Patterson said. "It's not clear whether the age-old wisdom applies."For example, the candidate widely acknowledged as the GOP frontrunner, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, has yet to seriously contest a caucus or a primary. He's not expected to start campaigning in earnest until Florida's Jan. 29 primary. "The big question mark is how voters are going to respond to Rudy Giuliani," Patterson said.