FARMINGTON HILLS, Mich. - Mitt Romney bounded to the stage, scanned a crowd that included many family members and old friends, and reminisced about tagging along during the gubernatorial campaigns of his father, George.
“I love this state,’’ Romney said last week at a banquet hall about 15 miles away from his childhood home. “It seems right here.’’
The earnestness of the moment was undeniable. But it also underscored the surprising and potentially dire circumstance Romney faces. In this state where the family name has long been considered golden, and where Romney was raised as the son of a popular governor, some polls show him trailing former senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania in the Feb. 28 GOP primary.
A home-court loss here in the kind of Midwestern state that Republicans want to be competitive in against President Obama could cripple Romney’s effort to fulfill his longtime ambition to be the Republican presidential nominee - and avoid repeating his father’s failure to win the White House. So Romney is pouring out the family memories, reminding voters about his father’s legacy, writing an op-ed for the Detroit News about how he is a “son of Detroit,’’ and flooding the airwaves with a television ad that recalls his trip with his dad to a local auto show.
“This is personal,’’ he says in the ad.
But as much as Romney declares his love for Michigan, the real question is whether Republican voters here will love him back - or rebuff him as sharply as voters in Minnesota, Missouri, and Colorado did earlier this month. Indeed, by invoking the father-son comparison, Romney has launched an uncommonly personal campaign subplot: the Michigan primary is not just a race between Romney and his Republican opponents, but also between Romney and the long shadow still cast here by his father. Even Romney has said that he could never come close to matching the accomplishments of the man he idolized and calls the “real deal.’’
George Romney’s legacy here remains very real, even if memories of it are fading. He turned around American Motors Corp., and served three two-year terms as governor. But he did so as a relatively liberal Republican, blunt and outspoken, even walking out on the party’s national convention in 1964 when it nominated Barry Goldwater. Whatever one thought of George Romney’s political views, there was little doubt where he stood - toward the left end of the Republican Party spectrum - and that he detested efforts to label politicians. Writing to Goldwater, the elder Romney criticized “dogmatic ideological parties.’’
Mitt Romney, who was born in Detroit and raised in the wealthy suburb of Bloomfield Hills, initially followed his father’s path, proclaiming he was an independent-minded moderate when he ran for political office in Massachusetts. But he is campaigning as a different kind of Romney as he tries to win votes from a Republican Party that is much more conservative than in his father’s day. Romney earlier this month called himself “severely conservative,’’ seeking to reassure Republicans who remain leery about his past position, such as his one-time support of abortion rights.
The result is that the Romney brand has blurred, leaving voters with mixed views about whether the son is following his father’s ideological path, or only his father’s ambition to be president.
“I don’t think the Romney name means a lot,’’ said Robert Smith, an 88-year-old from Livonia who carried a framed newspaper clipping of him and George Romney, which he hoped to show to Mitt. “Joe Blow could do just as well, namewise, as Romney. I don’t think there’s a residue.’’
But Romney’s supporters insist the connection across generations remains strong.
“You’ve got Romney with his roots here. It’s as big, and deep, and broad as the Great Lakes themselves,’’ said Attorney General Bill Schuette, Romney’s Michigan campaign chairman. “The more he expresses himself about this Michigan stuff - his birthplace, his dad, cars - I like that. It refreshes everybody about the Romney moments of years ago.’’
His efforts to connect can still come across at times a bit awkwardly. Noticing high school friends in the crowd in Grand Rapids, Romney gushed, “Any old girlfriends here? Oh, I have to be careful. Ann’s not here today. Don’t tell.’’ And while his passion for the state is undeniable, he sometimes expresses it in peculiar ways.
“The trees are the right height,’’ he told the audience in Pleasant Hills last week. He said the state taught him to appreciate automobiles (“I mean, I grew up totally in love with cars’’), and he professed his love for the lakes (“the Great Lakes, but also all the little inland lakes,’’ he clarified).
Like many older Michigan residents, L. Brooks Patterson remembers the day in 1967 when George Romney undermined his presidential campaign by telling an interviewer he had been “brainwashed’’ by US generals in Vietnam whose overly rosy briefings had persuaded that the war was necessary and winnable. Now Patterson is the chief executive of Oakland County, which includes the city of Bloomfield Hills where Romney grew up, and he is determined to help the son avoid the father’s fate.
“There is a lot of George in Mitt Romney,’’ Patterson said, noting similar backgrounds in business and government. “Mitt is running for the right reasons. But there is a little slice of him that wants to make his father proud . . . he has come home. I think he’d want to look up to the heavens and say, ‘vindication, Dad.’ ’’
George Romney, who campaigned by his son’s side during Mitt’s unsuccessful bid in Massachusetts for the US Senate in 1994, died in 1995, before his son was elected in 2002 as governor of Massachusetts and twice sought the presidency.
For many Michiganders who do remember George Romney, the contrast between the father and son is striking. Bill Ballenger, a former GOP state representative who runs the influential newsletter, Inside Michigan Politics, knew the elder Romney and recalls meeting an 18-year-old Mitt and his father in 1965 at the governor’s residence. Having known both men during their careers, he is a student of their differences.
George Romney, Ballenger said, “was a force of nature. He was a very extroverted, straightforward, candid, energetic, and seemingly ingenuous person that Mitt has had problems emulating. Mitt has got this plasticity about him that it has been hard for him to overcome. There is something artificial about him compared to his father, and I think Mitt’s reputation for being a flip-flopper on issues feeds into that.’’
Some recent Michigan polls have not only shown Romney trailing Santorum, but have also raised questions about how effective Romney’s effort to play up his roots has been. A poll released last week by the Detroit News showed that while about 68 percent of Michigan voters view both candidates favorably, Santorum leads 39.2 percent to 21.4 percent in the “very favorable’’ category.
The Romney name carries weight mainly among older voters, said Corwin Smidt, a political science professor at Calvin College in Grand Rapids.
“My wife was a resident of the state and she remembers Romney very positively,’’ he said. “But my wife is 65. It’s an older generation that would be more impressed, if at all, with that. . . . It’s a limited factor, to what extent it is a factor. It would be among a relatively small segment of the population and even among that population it may not come into play.’’
Indeed, the lure of the Romney brand may have been overstated. While Romney’s father was a popular figure, it is less-remembered that Mitt’s mother, Lenore, ran unsuccessfully for the US Senate in 1970; that Mitt’s brother, Scott, lost his bid to be the Republican nominee for state’s attorney general in 1998; and that Scott’s former wife, Ronna Romney, failed twice in her effort to be the Republican nominee for a US Senate seat.
Romney himself did win the 2008 Republican primary here, in part by vowing to stop job losses. When Senator John McCain told voters during that campaign that some of the state’s auto jobs “are not coming back,’’ Romney said he was “not willing to accept defeat like that.’’ Unlike his father, Romney never ran one of Michigan’s great auto companies, but the legacy resonated four years ago and may have helped seal his primary victory.
Months after the campaign, Romney wrote an op-ed for the New York Times that was headlined, “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt,’’ in which he opposed a federal bailout for the auto industry and argued instead for a “managed bankruptcy.’’ He predicted that “you can kiss the automotive industry goodbye’’ if there was a bailout.
While all of the 2012 Republican candidates have said they opposed the auto bailout, Romney has been blasted by Democrats who said his plan would not have worked. Romney last week doubled down on the issue, writing an op-ed for the Detroit News in which he stood by his proposal for managed bankruptcy and said the bailout was “crony capitalism.’’ Santorum, meanwhile, is trying to use the issue against Romney, saying the former Massachusetts governor is inconsistent because he supported the bailout for Wall Street firms.
In the end, Romney’s aides hope that the family history could tip the Michigan vote in his favor. One of Romney’s advisers, Ron Kaufman, often wears a pin on his lapel from George Romney’s campaign. The campaign bus has a giant banner from one of George’s gubernatorial campaigns. Romney often is stopped by voters who share a story about his father, or ask him to sign a photo featuring his father. A 77-year-old retired woman last year in Michigan presented Romney with an invitation she received in 1965 to have tea with Romney’s mother, who at the time was the state’s first lady. Mitt, the woman said, had parked her Buick.
Romney, who has sometimes been criticized for being cold and impersonal on the campaign trail, seems to melt at such moments. “You’re so kind,’’ he often says.
At others, simply, “I miss my Dad.’’