Romney States Case to Auto Industry

Mitt Romney autographs a campaign poster in Southfield, Mich., from the 1968 campaign of former Michigan governor George Romney, his father.
Mitt Romney autographs a campaign poster in Southfield, Mich., from the 1968 campaign of former Michigan governor George Romney, his father. (By Lm Otero -- Associated Press)
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By Michael D. Shear and Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, January 14, 2008

DETROIT, Jan. 13 -- Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney is tying his fate in the presidential primary in Michigan to the survival of the American auto industry, casting himself as the champion of its workers while blaming his rival Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) for Washington's indifference to its plight.

Both men raced across Michigan's economically troubled landscape Sunday in search of support ahead of a vote Tuesday that is likely to either give Romney the win he needs to keep his presidential hopes alive or firmly establish McCain as the front-runner and someone who can succeed beyond New Hampshire.

With polls here showing the Michigan race essentially tied, Romney portrayed McCain as a villain in what he said is the federal government's overregulation of the industry and blind insistence on tougher fuel standards.

"Look at Washington. What have they done to help the domestic auto industry?" Romney said on CNN on Sunday, citing congressional pressure to improve gas mileage and reduce emissions. "Look, you can't keep on throwing anvils at Michigan and the auto industry and then say, how come they are not swimming well?"

McCain fired right back. After an overflowing town hall meeting Sunday afternoon, the veteran senator told reporters he has confidence that Michigan's auto industry can thrive while meeting tougher environmental rules.

"I am convinced that Detroit can not only meet these standards but exceed them. Maybe Governor Romney doesn't think they can," McCain said aboard his Straight Talk Express bus.

McCain repeated an allegation he first made Saturday that Romney supported a tax increase on sport-utility vehicles. "I would not support a tax increase on SUVs," McCain said.

The rhetoric by campaign operatives was even more angry, reflecting the urgency of a win here for both men. A spokesman for Romney called McCain's SUV claim "absolute nonsense" and said Romney had only called for a tax cut on hybrid vehicles as a way to encourage sales.

"Senator McCain has abandoned the facts for his own brand of hypocrisy," Romney spokesman Kevin Madden said. "He has proposed a massive Washington mandate that would smother the auto industry, yet he's able to keep a straight face while criticizing a pragmatic and growth-friendly way of encouraging more fuel efficiency."

McCain's top aide, Mark Salter, responded quickly by saying that, "In the Romney campaign, facts are unwelcome guests. But they have cornered the market on hypocrisy. Governor Romney proposed a tax on SUVs without industry support and effectively raised the gas tax in Massachusetts."

While campaigning for governor, Romney proposed decreasing the excise tax on fuel-efficient cars. In newspaper interviews at the time, Romney said such a move could lead to higher taxes on SUVs, though he never proposed raising them.

Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee spent Sunday in South Carolina, where he is counting on another victory fueled by support from the state's evangelical community. He preached at the 2,500-person First Baptist North Spartanburg. Former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani campaigned at the El Rey Jesus church in Miami.

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