In Michigan, Romney sees opportunity during nostalgic homecoming

HOLLAND, Mich. — As Mitt Romney took off for his beloved native Michigan on Monday night, his last swing on a bus tour that brought him through six key states, he sought to draw a political lesson in the state’s landscape.

When the plane lands, he told reporters, “look around, and you’ll see the trees are the right height.”

Romney may have been joking — with a reference to his earlier, much-mocked comments about the state’s right-sized flora — but he is seriously bullish about his chances to become the first Republican presidential nominee to win Michigan in a quarter century, buoyed both by his faith in his family’s good name here as well as by recent state polls showing a tightening race with President Obama.

“I think Michigan’s a state I can win,” Romney told reporters on the flight, noting playfully that the state is shaped like a mitt. “If I win in Michigan, then I become the president, and that would mean a lot to me personally.”

Romney trumpeted the same message across Michigan all day Tuesday, promising on the final swing of his “Every Town Counts” bus tour to paint the state red.

In Frankenmuth, a Bavarian-themed tourist wonderland, Romney’s father’s legacy as governor is still so strong that one older gentleman was overheard at the morning rally asking when he would get to see “George’s son.” And when the candidate arrived, he waxed nostalgic about the kitschy town’s fried chicken and German butter noodles.

A few hours later, Romney was in DeWitt talking up the cherry pie — but only after Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette introduced the candidate as Mitt “Cherry Pie” Romney, in recognition of the many cherry pie contests teenaged Mitt and his father won at county fairs across the Wolverine State.

“Most people say that Michigan — ahh, out of touch, out of reach for a Republican. No way a Republican can win,” Romney said as he stumped outside the Sweetie-licious pie shop in DeWitt. “Regardless of whether or not you’re Republican or Democrat, the people of Michigan want someone who will get the job done… and I’ll do it.”

For Romney, winning Michigan will demand more than nostalgic visits. Romney ignored metropolitan Detroit on his tour Tuesday, and he said nothing at three rallies about the government’s bailout of the U.S. automobile industry, which may be his Achilles heel here.

This son of a Detroit automobile executive and a self-professed car geek — growing up, Romney says, he could identify any model after seeing just one square foot of the car -- was an outspoken opponent of the 2009 bailout of General Motors and Chrysler now seen here as a success.

To the Democrats — who take every opportunity to gleefully remind voters of Romney’s 2008 op-ed column, “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt,” which outlined his opposition to the auto bailout — this all but disqualifies Romney in the fall campaign.

“He has shot himself in the foot in Michigan,” former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm (D) said in a recent interview. “For him to have opposed it is offensive, and what’s even more offensive about it is that he comes from an auto family … It was the talk of the state when he stabbed us in the back when we were on our knees and he wrote that op-ed. It was on everybody’s lips – conservatives, moderates, Democrats.”

“It was a really bone-headed move on his part,” Granholm added, “and I can’t see people forgiving him.”

Romney’s advisers say they won’t let the Democrats so easily cast Romney as anti-auto. “We’re definitely not going to cede the notion that Mitt Romney wants to see the auto industry do well,” said Katie Packer Gage, Romney’s deputy campaign manager and a Michigan native. “He knows more about cars and the American auto industry than anyone in the Obama administration will ever know.”

Romney’s campaign team puts Michigan in a second tier of key states — along with Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — that are more traditionally Democratic and considered must-wins for Obama. They sense an opportunity to force Obama to defend Michigan, which he carried in 2008 by 16 percentage points, with plans for an advertising campaign and a lot of what one adviser called “Mitt time,” meaning candidate visits.

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