Two Michigan rallies reveal Romney, Santorum flaws

When Mitt Romney arrived for a rally in this Detroit suburb, he needed a crew of roadies to unpack him. His campaign brought its own flags and its own chairs and its own stage and its own DJ, using a special “Romney-Michigan” playlist with Kid Rock and Kiss.

The Romney people even brought their own doughnuts: 35 dozen of a Detroit favorite called paczki (“punch-kee”), in flavors including strawberry, rose-hip and prune.

Rick Santorum does not provide doughnuts.

He does not provide music, either. Or flags. Or chairs. At a Santorum rally in Holland, Mich. — a day earlier on the opposite side of this desperately contested state — the candidate brought a sweater vest. Three of his children: “Numbers two, three and four,” he said. And a banner that wouldn’t stay on the wall.

“What’s at stake in this election is the concept of limited government and of a free people building this great and just society,” Santorum said as his supporters stood or sat uncomfortably on the carpet. One woman keeled over after standing too long, prompting organizers and police to tend to her.

Two men. Two rallies. This week in Michigan, a pair of campaign events revealed the deep — and opposite — flaws that have kept either of the front-runners from running away with the GOP nomination.

Romney uses a grandiose campaign to deliver relatively modest ideas.

He rolls into town like a state fair. Then he comes out to talk about tax policy and “America the Beautiful.” That has attracted a crowd with sensible minivans and serious economic worries. But it doesn’t win over Republicans who want the president to be a moral spokesman instead of just a national CEO.

This instinct toward grand stagecraft backfired Friday, when Romney gave an economic speech at Detroit’s cavernous Ford Field. That venue outstripped even Romney’s impressive campaign machine: It wasn’t enough to camouflage a largely empty stadium.

Santorum, by contrast, uses a modest campaign to espouse deeply grandiose ideas.

His premise is that only he — a man who lacks the logistical wherewithal to rustle up snacks — can manage to rebuild the nuclear family and save freedom itself. That has made him a surprise front-runner. But it has done little to reassure the practical-minded part of the GOP base.

“Your values — your values — will return to the White House and to our country!” Santorum said when he finished his talk.

“I need your help!” Romney said when he finished his.

Santorum in Holland

The date of the Michigan primary — Feb. 28 — had been known for four months. But it wasn’t until last weekend that Santorum’s campaign contacted Hope College, a Christian school in Michigan’s conservative west. They needed a room for 200 people. And they needed it Monday.

Santorum’s people were both late and wrong. Their man was surging in Michigan — they needed a room for 400 people.

His supporters filled the college’s auditorium 90 minutes before the rally. Then they filled the overflow room, with a crowd like that on a parents’ weekend: young students and gray-haired couples. The audience watched two organizers try to hang up Santorum’s lone banner, which read “Made in America.”

“Awww!” the crowd said when it fell again.

“Not all of ’em are Christian,” said Jim Newhouse, talking about the presidential candidates as his wife, Marj, encouraged him to stop. “Romney’s a Mormon. And Newt — I don’t know what Newt is.”

Newt Gingrich, who has played little role in the Michigan race, is a former Southern Baptist who converted to Catholicism.

The Newhouses said their other favorite politicians included Ronald Reagan and televangelist Pat Robertson, a 1988 GOP candidate. Only a strong conservative like Santorum, they said, could beat President Obama this time.

“We took a moderate, McCain, last time. And he didn’t win,” Jim Newhouse said, referring to the 2008 Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.).

Santorum’s warm-up act was a local preacher who said he came from “a Puritan tradition” and then uncorked a prayer in ye olde language. “The world is artful to entrap,” he said. “Let our faith scan every painted trifle and escape every bewitching snare.”

Then Santorum came out in his trademark sweater vest and spoke calmly about frightening things. He compared Obama to Britain’s King George III, the monarch who lost the American Revolution.

“Barack Obama’s view of America is the same view, well, that the sovereigns of old had,” Santorum said, “which is that Americans are better off being ruled by smart people, the elite snobs.” He had examples: Government now had a role in individual health-insurance decisions. It had attempted to limit when churches could fire their own ministers.

“Next, it’s going to go to the grocery store,” Santorum said, “and say how much money that they’ll be able to have to stock their shelves.”

Santorum said his goals were not just to defeat Obama and cut $5 trillion from the federal debt. There was more.

“Children having children. Families not forming,” Santorum said. “America’s a different country. We need solutions, that talk about . . . how we’re going to bring fathers back involved in their children’s lives.”

Here, Santorum avoided one of Gingrich’s tendencies. He didn’t propose complicated solutions to these complicated problems. Gingrich’s complex policy ideas on Social Security, immigration and taxes have attracted some voters but turned others off. Santorum stayed simple. The only specific plan he mentioned for rebuilding the country’s family structure was to change parts of the tax code that penalized married couples.

At the end, Santorum shook hands while his theme music — silence — filled the room.

In the crowd, Jim Newhouse was impressed: “I liked everything he was saying.”

Romney in Shelby Township

Tuesday’s event, like many of Romney’s rallies, was held in a factory. This one makes “automated robotic fabrication systems.” Romney’s crews started setting up at noon the day before.

The big pieces of Romney’s stagecraft are always impressive: the DJ, the American flag as tall as a house. But his campaign also does the little things. The folding chairs are tied together with zip ties, so you couldn’t unstraighten Romney’s rows if you tried. Romney’s message — that he is the only Republican in the race built from presidential timber — is reinforced by the slickness of these events. It looks as if he’s president already.

And yet it somehow wasn’t enough.

“Mitt Romney is fighting like an underdog! But you know what? Michigan loves an underdog!” said the state’s attorney general, former congressman Bill Schuette, who introduced the candidate. Romney was running neck and neck, in the state of his birth, with a former senator whom Pennsylvania had kicked out six years ago. “Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce the Comeback Kid, Mitt Romney, the next president of the United States of America!”

The Comeback Kid walked out smiling, wearing a button-down shirt and jeans.

And immediately messed something up.

“By the way, how was the paczkis this morning? Yeah, yeah! That was very good,” Romney said. His message: We are not so different, you and I. We have both just eaten the same food! But then Romney began talking about the powdered sugar on the paczki.

There was no powdered sugar. The doughnuts were glazed and bare.

“Reminded me of what’s going on outside,” Romney said, comparing the falling snow to a doughnut that people had not eaten. (Had he not really eaten one of the paczki, after all? Had Romney’s campaign given the naked doughnuts to the crowd, while Romney was eating upgraded, sugar-dusted ones backstage?) It was one of several unforced errors. Romney also referred several times to “my state” — and meant Massachusetts, not Michigan.

Once he got going, Romney said that Obama is “taking us on a path to become more like Greece. Or worse. I will not allow that. I will cut spending. I will cap spending, and I will finally balance our budget.”

Romney’s speeches are sprinkled with “by the way,” as he thinks of a piece of his stump speech and throws it in as a non sequitur. “I love the hymns of America, by the way,” he said, before starting his usual recital of “America the Beautiful.”

Romney’s best line of the day was unscripted. A stray Canadian had driven from Ontario to ask Romney a question and in the process joked that Romney could not have his ID card for Canada’s national health-care system.

The ball sat on the tee for a long second before Romney hit it. “I don’t want it!” Romney said. The crowd roared.

Romney’s audience was different from Santorum’s audience. It was a crowd that cared about economics, with no sloganeering bumper stickers on their minivans (Santorum’s was a car-decorating crowd: “Abortion is NOT Healthcare.” “Warning — In Case of Rapture, This Car Will Be Unmanned.” At the Romney rally, the most you got was “My Child Is an Honor Student”).

Afterward, many in Romney’s audience said they’d heard what they needed to hear.

“The Canada thing was so great,” said Lori Mayo, 39, of Shelby Township. She’d been laid off from an auto company at the bottom of the recession but had been hired back as Detroit’s fortunes began to rebound. She said Romney’s fiscal message still made sense, even if the economy was coming back. “There’s still the debt. We still eventually have to face this debt.”

After Romney had said goodbye, shaken a few hands and departed, his roadies started packing up. When they had removed the chairs, left behind on the factory floor were little zip-ties, “reserved” placards that had held seats for VIPs, “I’m with Mitt!” fliers that people had taken and discarded, and a grease-stained paczki box.

David A. Fahrenthold covers Congress for the Washington Post. He has been at the Post since 2000, and previously covered (in order) the D.C. police, New England, and the environment.
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