By Juliet Eilperin and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 15, 2008
DETROIT, Jan. 14 -- Mitt Romney said Monday that as president he would ease fuel-efficiency standards and spend billions more in federal money to bolster struggling automakers, a direct appeal to voters in a state that is likely to determine whether his campaign remains competitive or is relegated to also-ran status.
Sen. John McCain, who hopes a Michigan win will cement his front-runner standing and knock Romney from the race, took a different approach, continuing to deliver the kind of hard truths he believes are essential to mobilizing the independents who helped him beat George W. Bush here in 2000.
The candidates' divergent approaches highlight the degree to which Romney and McCain are counting on different segments of an undecided electorate to deliver them a win. Refusing to cede the race, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee returned here Monday from South Carolina to mobilize religious voters in the western part of the state.
Romney, who is hoping to capitalize on the fact that he grew up in Michigan and that his father served as a popular governor here in the 1960s, laid out a detailed plan on how he would seek to revive the struggling U.S. auto industry.
"Detroit can only thrive if Washington is an engaged partner, not a disinterested observer," he told a group of business leaders at the Detroit Economic Club, adding that during his first 100 days in office he would convene a working group of industry, labor, congressional and state leaders to devise a national policy aimed at helping automakers. "I'm not open to a bailout, but I am open to a work-out."
As part of his plan, Romney said he would back spending an additional $20 billion over five years to federally fund research on energy, fuels, automotive technology and material sciences; modify a recently passed measure calling for U.S. vehicle fleets to average 35 miles per gallon by 2020; and ease automakers' financial burden by expanding health-care coverage nationwide.
Romney's remarks pleased many in the lunch audience, including Terry Daoud, a Detroit Ford dealer who said that while the auto industry bears some of the blame for its current predicament, it needs a more sympathetic partner in Washington. U.S. automakers are striving to make more fuel-efficient cars, he added, but may not be able to meet the new requirements in time.
"We know our ills," he said. "Give us a chance to cure it on our own timetable without constraints that will choke us."
While Romney tried to woo Republicans through speeches and local media interviews, his campaign was operating 15 call centers that had placed more than 100,000 calls to likely GOP voters by last night. His staff was targeting party members in the state's three most reliable counties: Macomb, Oakland and Wayne.
After failing to achieve his goal of winning early contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, Romney has staked much of his candidacy on Michigan. The Romney campaign has volunteer operations in all 83 of Michigan's counties and has been airing television ads here continuously since mid-December. The campaign pulled ads in South Carolina and Florida last week to devote more resources to Michigan.
Romney, along with McCain and Huckabee, also paid homage to domestic automakers in Detroit on Monday evening by attending the North American International Auto Show, where more than two dozen manufacturers displayed gleaming models of everything from a silver hybrid Chevy Malibu to a Granny Smith-apple-green Jeep Renegade. At one point, Romney and Huckabee -- each surrounded by his own set of reporters -- stood 40 feet away from each other examining different fuel-efficient sport-utility vehicles.
McCain spent most of Monday traveling across Michigan by bus, holding town hall meetings in Kalamazoo and Holland before stopping in Detroit. At every stop, he went out of his way to make comments unpopular with many Republicans, saying he does not support drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and giving them "straight talk" by vowing that if elected he would never allow torture. The audience applauded heartily at that, even though his position runs counter to the way many in his party view controversial interrogation tactics.
McCain also told reporters that any candidate who says traditional auto manufacturing jobs "are coming back is either naive or is not talking straight with the people of Michigan and America." Instead, he said, business and political leaders should "embrace green technologies," adding: "That's the future. That's what we want."
McCain aides think the senator from Arizona will benefit Tuesday from a potential surge of independent and Democratic voters who have a history of turning out for him, helping him win here eight years ago even though Bush beat him more than 2 to 1 among Republicans.
Denise DeCook, vice president for public affairs at the Lansing-based Marketing Resource Group, said the primary represents a test of "who's going to be the leader in bringing new jobs to Michigan." DeCook, a GOP consultant who is not affiliated with any of the campaigns, said McCain's remarks might be undiplomatic but could easily resonate with the state's voters.
"If you live in Michigan, you know these jobs are probably not coming back," DeCook said, referring to the auto industry's current slump. When it comes to independents, she added, McCain "has benefited from his plain speaking style in appealing to those voters."
Most Democratic candidates are skipping their party's primary because no delegates are at stake, leaving Democrats and independents free to vote in the GOP contest.
"As turnout goes up, it gives McCain a better shot," said Michael Traugott, a professor at the University of Michigan's Center for Political Studies. "The Romney strategy is based on mobilizing and energizing Republicans. McCain is going to do better the more independents and crossover Democrats that come to the polls."
Advisers to Huckabee, who initially hoped their candidate could upend either Romney or McCain for second place here, privately said they now see Michigan as a chance to effectively end Romney's campaign before South Carolina, where they hope to defeat McCain in a primary Saturday.
Another wild card could be liberals who may vote in the GOP contest solely to further muddle the Republican race. Basil Simon, a lawyer in the affluent Detroit suburb of Grosse Pointe Park who has been deluged this week by recorded phone messages from Huckabee, McCain and Romney, said after reading the liberal blog Daily Kos that he is considering voting for Romney on the theory that it will hurt the GOP.
"McCain is a formidable candidate; he has some momentum. . . . You want to slow that momentum down," Simon said.
Staff writer Perry Bacon Jr. contributed to this report.