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Politics

Arizona, Michigan primaries

Romney accuses Santorum of trying to ‘kidnap’ primary

Mitt Romney in Michigan

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Mitt Romney greeted a group of children at his campaign headquarters in Livonia, Mich.

LIVONIA, Mich. – Mitt Romney this morning admitted to damaging his campaign, causing self-inflicted wounds with comments about his wealth. He conceded that he was not going to be the fire-breathing candidate who says incendiary things about President Obama. And he said he wasn’t positive he’d win Michigan’s primary tonight.

As voters here began heading to the polls, the former Massachusetts governor also accused chief rival Rick Santorum of trying to “kidnap our primary process” by issuing automated phone calls to Democrats, encouraging them to vote in the Republican primary today.

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“I need Republicans to get out and vote and say no to the dirty tricks of a desperate campaign,” Romney said. Democrats and independents are eligible to vote in the Republican primary.

Romney tried to differentiate between Santorum’s appeal to Democrats and his own decision to vote in the 1992 Democratic presidential primary for Paul Tsongas, who, Romney said earlier this month, he thought would be the weakest opponent for a Republican.

“It’s very different running for -- being a candidate for president, buying ads, and telling Democrats to go, to go mess into a Republican primary and to vote against me. Particularly when he doesn’t describe his own position on the very issues he attacks me for. In my case, I was certainly voting against the Democrat who I thought was the -- the person I thought would be the worst leader of our nation. In this case, as I recall, it was Bill Clinton. I wanted someone other than Bill Clinton. And certainly and against -- I voted against Ted Kennedy, Tip O’Neill, and Bill Clinton. It seemed like a good group to be against.”

In his first press conference in nearly three weeks, Romney stared into the face of what could be a devastating loss in the state where he was born and raised, the state where his father was a popular three-term governor, and the state that he has waxed nostalgic about for weeks.

But facing a rival who has surged while making some controversial statements – including calling President Obama “a snob” for promoting higher education -- Romney made the case that the Republican Party should nominate someone more measured.

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“You know it’s very easy to excite the base with incendiary comments,” Romney said. “We’ve seen throughout the campaign that if you’re willing to say really outrageous things that are accusatory and attacking President Obama that you’re going to jump up in the polls.”

“I’m not willing to light my hair on fire to try and get support,” he added. “I am who I am.”

Polls in Michigan show that the race is a dead heat. Critics have said that if Romney is unable to win in his native state, it would illustrate deep problems for his campaign going forward.

Romney said he was proud of his staff, but conceded that he himself has made errors.

“I’m very pleased with the campaign, its organization,” he said. “The candidate sometimes makes some mistakes and so I’m trying to do better and work harder and make sure that we get our message across.”

When asked what mistakes he was referring to, he laughed.

“Oh, I can’t imagine you would have a hard time coming up with anything,” he said. “Never repeat your mistakes.”

When asked whether he understands that some of his comments about his wealth are hurting his campaign, he said simply, “Yes. Next question.”

Romney on Friday noted that his wife owned “two Cadillacs.” Two days later, at the Daytona 500, he told an Associated Press reporter that he didn’t follow the sport as closely as ardent fans, but he knew some of the team owners.

At one point, a reporter reminded Romney of his comments about “lighting your hair on fire.”

“I’m not going to do it,” Romney responded. “I don’t care how hard you ask. It would be a big fire, I assure you.”

Globe correspondent Shira Schoenberg also contributed to this article. Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com.

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