Car Bailout Position May Hurt Romney In Michigan

Symbolically speaking, this month's Michigan's primary may be the most important of the GOP presidential race to date. It's the state where Mitt Romney grew up, and his father was a beloved government and business leader. And now, Romney seems to have a real chance of losing the state to Rick Santorum.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. Michigan probably will not be the swing state that decides the general election. But it holds a lot of symbolism right now. The primary there, in less than two weeks, may be the most important of the Republican contest so far, because it's where Mitt Romney grew up, and where his father was a prominent automobile executive and a governor. Now Romney seems to have a real chance of losing the state to Rick Santorum.

We'll hear next from both candidates, starting with NPR's Ari Shapiro, who has been traveling with the Romney campaign.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Here in Detroit, the fate of the car companies and the fate of the city are tangled up in each other like the roots of an old tree. So when GM announced its annual profits yesterday morning, the whole city listened. Local news radio station WWJ trumpeted: big news out of downtown Detroit.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: A record turnaround for General Motors, the world's biggest automaker, releasing its 2011 earnings report.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: $7.6 billion is GM's best profit ever, and comes less than three years after the company emerged from bankruptcy.

SHAPIRO: Workers will get up to $7,000 in profit-sharing checks. That helps Detroit. But it's a thornier situation for Michigan's native son Mitt Romney. At a morning event, he didn't mention the car industry at all. In the afternoon, it was only a small part of his speech to a group of business leaders outside of Detroit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

MITT ROMNEY: I grew up totally in love with cars. It used to be, in the '50s and '60s, if you showed me one square foot of almost any part of a car, I could tell you what brand it was.

SHAPIRO: During the worst of the recession, Romney wanted to show the car companies tough love. He argued against government intervention. And he still says the country would be better off today if GM and Chrysler had gone through bankruptcy without the help of federal money.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

ROMNEY: I'm delighted it's profitable. In my view, this auto industry can continue to lead the world and must continue to lead the world to keep Detroit with a vibrant and prosperous future.

SHAPIRO: Many economists say the car companies could not have survived restructuring through bankruptcy without government money, because banks weren't giving any loans during the worst of the financial crisis.

GM employee Jerron Garza stood in the cold with a group of protesters outside of the lunch meeting. He believes Romney is in denial.

JERRON GARZA: I think Mitt would've been better off coming back to Michigan, acknowledging that President Obama was right about the loans to the auto companies instead of doubling down and denying that millions of jobs were saved by the actions that our president took.

SHAPIRO: Romney's hard line against government intervention may help him win votes from Tea Party spending hawks in the Michigan primary. And right now, the Michigan primary is his biggest worry.

Gus Semaan is one of many undecided voters at this lunch event.

GUS SEMAAN: You know, what I like about Romney is he does from a business background, and no business is perfect. I understand that, as a business owner. Santorum, on the other hand, I believe is a true conservative. I know he knows Washington probably as good or better than Mitt Romney does.

SHAPIRO: Now, in the past few months, when Mitt Romney has been under attack from within his own party, his approach has been to relentlessly bludgeon his rival. In Florida, Romney sometimes named Newt Gingrich less than a minute into a stump speech. Yet, over two days of Michigan campaign events, Romney did not mention Rick Santorum once. That could be in response to voters like Dale Pacynski.

DALE PACYNSKI: I have a favorite saying when it comes to politics: Never mud wrestle with pigs. You only get dirty, and besides, the pigs like it.

SHAPIRO: In other words, when Mitt Romney goes on the attack, he may beat the other guy down, but his own likability numbers drop, too. And as Pacynski can attest, that has an impact.

PACYNSKI: I've been primarily a Republican most of my life, but they really have kind of let me down with all the mud-slinging during the debates and all that stuff.

SHAPIRO: Of course, there is a superPAC supporting Romney that is still slinging mud in television ads. But at least on the stump, Mitt Romney is keeping focused on President Obama, and on his own accomplishments, hoping that those will be enough to carry him across his home state finish line.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Detroit.

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