Mitt Romney, president of Michigan

Romney scrambles the Republican race by leaning hard on his Michigan roots, and on local nostalgia, for his first primary victory. But will his act play nationally?


Mike Madden
January 16, 2008 6:55PM (UTC)

The night before he won the Michigan primary, Mitt Romney was wrapped up in another campaign altogether. At a Republican gala here Monday, an admirer presented him with an entire carton of George Romney paraphernalia -- bumper stickers, bracelets, a comb, as well as 250 of the "Romney blue" pins that Mitt happily told voters he'd been collecting a handful at a time for $5 or $10 a pop on eBay. The man had been in charge of merchandising for Romney's dad's presidential campaign 40 years ago, and kept the whole carton in his basement since then. Finally, with another Romney seeking the White House, he could pass it on.

A shimmering "Romney blue" cloud of nostalgia (mixed with a fierce Michigan pride bordering on nationalism) surrounded the former Massachusetts governor in the closing days of the campaign here. His father, though a failed presidential candidate, served six years as the state's governor back in its glory days -- when the Big Three automakers ruled the roads, and Toyota and Honda weren't even distant threats. Listening to Romney as he sought his first victory in a contested primary, you almost got the idea that the winner would go on to be president of Michigan. "We're going to have a leadership in Washington that gets the job done for this great state," Romney promised voters in Grand Rapids Tuesday morning, at his final campaign event. "I'm going to fight to help Michigan, and I will not rest until it's come back."

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That Michigan spirit worked for Romney, finally giving him the "gold medal" he had been seeking since he settled for a silver in Iowa, behind Mike Huckabee, and another in New Hampshire, behind John McCain. Powered by a hefty edge among self-identified Republican voters, he beat McCain by almost 10 points in a state McCain took from George W. Bush eight years ago. Low turnout throughout the day left Romney aides feeling good well before the networks called him the winner; if Democrats and independents, who were eligible to vote in the GOP primary here, stayed home, that made it easier for Romney to triumph in the end. "Tonight marks the beginning of a comeback," Romney said. "A comeback for America." And for him. Though his strategists didn't admit it until they were sure he would win, a loss here would have crippled Romney, despite his promises to charge on to South Carolina and Florida and the Feb. 5 states after that.

But despite his obvious relief at victory, in some ways Romney's win felt like more of a product of his unique ties here -- and his over-the-top optimism about the economy -- than it did a sign of national "Mitt-mentum," to use the Romney campaign's neologism. Forget that Romney, like so many people, is an ex-Michigander, who went off to college and never came back. For the closing days of the campaign, it was like he'd never left. "This feels right," he said about the state in a brief -- and rare -- interview with reporters on his plane Monday night. "It's funny; you go back, all the stores seem right, people know all the places you know ... Where you were born and raised, somehow, just seems like the place it needs to be." His speeches dwelled heavily on the details of his courtship with Ann Romney, his suburban Detroit high school sweetheart, first love, and wife of nearly 39 years. (They first met in elementary school, but Romney didn't pay much attention to her until she was "almost 16," and stole her away from her date at a party.) He opened a talk to the Detroit Economic Club on Monday with a story about his father mixing up Mt. Clemens, Mich., with Mt. Pleasant, Mich., during a campaign stop there in the early 1960s -- it may have been a measure of how friendly the audience was that the story somehow still got laughs.

Make no mistake, though: Romney had no regrets about making his financial and political career in another M-state far to the east. "No," he said flatly, when a reporter asked him Monday night if he wished he'd actually run for governor of Michigan. "My life was in Massachusetts. It was a great place to raise our kids. That's been our home for 35 years; we love it there." You didn't hear that around Michigan voters. (You probably also won't hear Romney telling South Carolinians, as he told reporters Monday, that "what's funny" about the Palmetto State is "they think I have the accent.")

Touring the Detroit auto show Monday afternoon, Romney walked right past a blood-red Lexus convertible on his way to check out another car he had his eye on. "Let's see," he told his oldest son, Tagg. "I want to take a look at this Town & Country if I can." Not many people would pass up a roadster for a minivan, especially not a man who owns one of the first new "retro" Mustangs to roll off the Ford assembly line in 2004. Romney was so relentlessly focused on his Michigan message that his need to pander robbed him of his taste. He paid rapt attention as Chrysler executives showed him a hideous lime-green Jeep dune buggy made of plastic ("good for surfing," one suit told him).

That ability to reinvent himself as a born-again Michigander in the week since New Hampshire (where Romney was the friendly technocrat next door) undoubtedly helped carry him to victory. But it also left advisors to his rivals fuming about the way he won. McCain's campaign, stung by the late Romney surge, sent reporters an e-mail quoting an AP story that called the night "a defeat for authenticity in politics." A strategist for one opponent said Romney's easy shifts from backing moderate policies in Massachusetts to being a would-be conservative purist now led to "enormous ill will" between Romney and nearly every other candidate in the race.

As if to diminish Romney's achievement, all the other candidates, anticipating the outcome, had fled Michigan before the polls closed. John McCain and Mike Huckabee were in South Carolina when the networks called it for Romney. That Romney walked out to give his victory speech a few minutes earlier than planned -- and thus, knocked McCain's concession speech off the air -- isn't likely to ease any tension the next time the GOP contenders all get together. Romney aides said it was just a simple mixup.

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Now Romney is once again moving on from Michigan, just as he did when he left the state for school, a career, a family; for life, basically. By beating McCain here, he kept himself in the race and kept the field wide open. Three different candidates have won the first three contests. "Tonight proves that you can't tell an American that there's something they just can't do, because Americans can do whatever they set their hearts on," Romney told his cheering fans here. To hear him tell it, Romney won in Michigan because voters are finally sick of a broken Washington. He's the candidate of the future, he says, not the pessimism of the past. But if his path to the White House is going to stretch longer than his father's did, Romney needs to prove he can keep winning -- even when the race moves to states where no one keeps the family's old memorabilia lying around.


Mike Madden

Mike Madden is Salon's Washington correspondent. A complete listing of his articles is here. Follow him on Twitter here.

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2008 Elections John Mccain, R-ariz. Mike Huckabee Mitt Romney Republican Party

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