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.
Michigan's auto giants are battling a financial crisis as severe as any the industry has encountered in the past few decades. Their problems are largely the result of steady gains by global rivals and their dependence on profit from trucks and SUVs.
Executives and political leaders in the state have long been troubled by what they perceive as an unsympathetic ear from Congress and the White House. They say the absence of a national strategy to retain automotive jobs is putting the state at a competitive disadvantage.
At a rally before several hundred supporters at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Romney told the crowd that unlike policymakers who have ignored Michigan's economic plight, he could help "build a brighter, prosperous future."
"Michigan is facing challenging times," he said. He wrapped up his speech by saying: "Washington is aware of it. Have they done anything? No! I will commit this to you: If I am president of the United States, I will not rest until Michigan is back."
In the last three days, Romney has transformed himself into Michigan's favorite son, telling the group in Southfield that he alone could remember the Motor City's glory days. "I grew up in this state," he said. "I remember when Michigan was the pride of America."
A few attendees at the rally said that while their right to drive larger, less efficient cars was not their top voting issue, they appreciated Romney's support for it.
"The American people have a love affair with their cars. When I came here, I had never seen such large cars," said Philip Winteringham, a Romney supporter from Howell, who moved to the United States from England. He said he now loves large autos and owns a Cadillac sedan and a Chevy Suburban. "A gas guzzler," he said.
McCain started a final bus tour in Detroit, heading for the western part of the state, trailed by reporters -- and a gas-guzzling Hummer -- and holding rallies and town hall meetings.
At a town hall meeting in Howell, McCain answered questions for more than half an hour, promising to cut taxes, reduce government spending, make college more affordable and do more for veterans. He defended free-trade agreements and pledged to secure the nation's borders but said he does not support eliminating the citizenship birthright for the children of illegal immigrants.
"What we need to do is secure our borders, and then it's not a problem," he said to a round of applause.
McCain advisers said they are expecting a close race, but they also are counting on a repeat of 2000, when McCain surged to victory over George W. Bush in the state by winning an enormous percentage of the independent and Democratic voters, who can participate in the Republican primary. In 2000, McCain lost among Republicans to Bush but still won the Michigan primary by eight percentage points.
The 2008 race resembles that contest. McCain once again won the New Hampshire primary but has yet to prove he has built a campaign that can effectively turn out voters.
Romney's losses in Iowa and New Hampshire have called into question his early-state strategy.
Staff writer Sholnn Freeman contributed to this report.