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With Talk of Cars, Romney Courts Michigan Voters

Mitt Romney smiles before autographing a 40-year-old campaign poster of his father, the late Michigan Gov. George Romney, in Southfield, Mich., Sunday. (AP)

By Juliet Eilperin
SOUTHFIELD, Mich. -- During a rally this afternoon before several hundred supporters at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Romney told the crowd that unlike policy makers who have ignored Michigan's economic plight, he could help "build a brighter, prosperous future" here by championing the auto industry.

"Michigan is facing challenging times," he said, wrapping up his speech with the declaration: "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." The crowd burst into applause, and as rock music played, the candidate left the stage.

In recent days Romney has repeatedly attacked McCain for backing stricter corporate average fuel economy, or CAFE, standards, arguing it amounts to an "unfounded mandate" that would cripple the auto industry. "Let's take those burdens off and let our companies compete," he told his supporters at the rally.

On CBS's Face the Nation yesterday, Romney told Bob Schieffer, "We need to be investing in basic science here. And we need to stop throwing anvils around the neck of the domestic auto manufacturers. This idea, for instance, of saying we're going to have unilateral caps and trades on greenhouse gases that are not participated by other nations, that would only hurt Detroit. It would only hurt American manufacturers. We've got to stop thinking about being popular around the world and doing what's right for America."

Romney, who as Massachusetts governor initially supported but then abandoned a regional pact in the Northeast to limit greenhouse gases, added he believes the U.S. should be "investing substantially more in basic science and research" than the current $4 billion a year it devotes to energy and fuel technology-related science.

Both Romney and his surrogates played up his Michigan ties yesterday, arguing he was uniquely positioned to relate to Michigan voters. Just as Romney told Schieffer he is the only GOP candidate "that's got the automobile industry in my blood veins," he told 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."

Before Romney took the stage at today's rally, Rep. Joe Knollenberg (R-Mich.) led the audience in a question-and-answer routine that included questions such as "Who is the only candidate running for president who was born in Michigan?" and "Who is the only candidate who was raised right here in Oakland County?" -- to which the crowd responded, screaming, "Mitt Romney!"

But for the most part Romney -- who gave few policy details in the speech, focusing instead on his childhood reminiscences and a handful of broad governing ideals -- was speaking to the converted at yesterday's rally, and many attendees backed him for reasons that had little to do with Michigan's economic state. Dan and Helen Sobeki , who live in Stanley Heights, said they back his opposition to taxes and illegal immigration; Jean and Philip Winteringham, who decades ago immigrated to the U.S. from Scotland and England, respectively, said they were drawn to Romney's stance on immigration.

"We came the legal way. We had interviews," said Philip Winteringham, who operated an auto parts business along with his wife. "Neither of us have drawn a penny off the United States government."

Still, Romney's backers said his support for the auto industry's legislative agenda would help sway Michigan voters. Knollenberg said President Bush "has not been helpful" to American manufacturers by approving the first new fuel efficiency standards in 32 years, which require vehicle fleets to average 35 miles per gallon by 2020. U.S. companies will not be able to achieve that goal "without putting a lot more money into the vehicle, and Governor Romney knows that," said Knollenberg, adding a sizeable portion of that money should come from the federal government.

While Congress appropriated a few million dollars to help auto manufacturers last year, Knollenberg said, "We did ask for a lot more, and nothing happened....Romney's a friend of the auto industry, which means a lot in Michigan."

McCain's campaign pointed out in an e-mail that Romney's embrace of less efficient autos is yet another policy reversal for their opponent. While campaigning for governor, Romney proposed decreasing the excise tax on fuel-efficient cars. In newspaper interviews at the time, Romney said that such a move could lead to higher taxes on SUVs, though he never proposed raising them.

A few attendees at the rally said that while it was not their top voting issue, they appreciated Romney's current support for their right to drive larger, less efficient cars.

"The American people have a love affair with their cars. When I came here, I had never seen such large cars," Winteringham said, adding that now, he loves large autos too and owns a Cadillac sedan as well as Chevy Suburban. "A gas guzzler," he said, with pride in his voice.

By Web Politics Editor  |  January 13, 2008; 7:03 PM ET
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