Romney Tries To Connect With Mich. Tea Party Voters

Michigan holds its GOP primary next Tuesday, and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney spoke at a Tea Party rally in Milford Thursday night. That's a segment of the party that he's had a hard time winning over in previous states during this primary season.

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Here's one clear pattern in the Republican presidential race. Mitt Romney, the man still favored to win, has not always embraced the Tea Party movement - and many Tea Party activists have made it clear they're not entirely enamored with him.

Last night in Michigan, Romney reached out to some Tea Party voters. He did that in the midst of a very tight fight against Rick Santorum for next week's Michigan primary. Romney is challenging Santorum's claim to be the true conservative.

Here's NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Milford, Michigan is a rural community about a 45-minute drive northwest of Detroit. Romney was appearing at a local banquet hall. The room would eventually fill up with some 500 people.

Among the very first to arrive was Tea Party activist 55-year-old Tom Petiprin. I asked him if he knows who he's voting for in Tuesday's primary. He says no, adding that his objective is to hear Romney speak and size him up in person.

TOM PETIPRIN: The thing that concerns me is I viewed him as a moderate, and that's not really what I want.

GONYEA: Romney took the stage just after 7:00 p.m. His speech included the usual references to his early years in Michigan. He was born in Detroit and lamented the city's troubled condition today.

MITT ROMNEY: And the entire state over the last decade, it seems that Michigan has been suffering a one-state recession, and that recession, of course, spilled out across the entire nation. That old saying - as goes General Motors, so goes the nation. There seems to be some truth in that.

GONYEA: But most of Romney's speech was about President Obama.

ROMNEY: He can't talk about housing values. He can't talk about unemployment statistics. He can't talk about how Iran is settling out, or how the Arab Spring is working out. He can't talk - I mean the - he can't talk about 24 million Americans out of work.

GONYEA: But there was also criticism of Rick Santorum. Romney didn't mention him by name, but he reminded the audience that in the previous night's debate Santorum was forced to explain why he supported the No Child Left Behind law when he was a senator - a vote Santorum says he regrets.

ROMNEY: One of the candidates last night spent most of the evening describing why it was he voted against his principles, and he said, you know, you got to take it for the team now and then. Well, my team is the people of the United States of America.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)

GONYEA: After the speech there was Q&A session in the form of previously submitted questions that a moderator read from index cards. It was not a direct give and take with audience members. But Romney was asked how he would debate President Obama on the issue of health care. The Massachusetts law Romney signed was a model for what critics call Obamacare.

ROMNEY: First thing I'd say to him is, Mr. President, you say that you copied a lot of what you did after what we did in my state. How come you didn't give me a call? All right? How come you didn't pick up the phone to give me a call? I'd have told you what worked and what didn't work.

GONYEA: Romney continued...

There's something known as the 10th Amendment of the Constitution. And under the Constitution, states...

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

ROMNEY: ...states are the places to take on issues like this, not the federal government.

GONYEA: This could have been a difficult crowd for Romney. It wasn't. Many lines were cheered. There were plenty of supporters here.

Cathy Shinn is a Tea Party member from nearby Brighton.

CATHY SHINN: I like his policies. At this time he's kind of a fix-it man rather than someone who is introducing all this new stuff all at once.

GONYEA: And we need a Mr. Fix-It?

SHINN: Yes. Definitely.

GONYEA: But there were plenty of skeptics as well. Fifty-four-year-old Gary Kwasniuk stresses that his big concern is beating President Obama. As for Romney...

GARY KWASNIUK: I'm buying into it a little bit, but I haven't been convinced.

GONYEA: At the end of the event I went and found Tom Petiprin. He's the guy I spoke to before the room filled up. He said he was glad he came, that he thought Romney's answers were good.

PETIPRIN: I like his message. And like I said, whoever the Republicans put out as a candidate will probably be my man. But we're in the primary right now and I got a choice to make - and I don't know if I'm pulling the lever for Mitt yet.

GONYEA: For Romney, it was a chance to connect with a group that has been very distrustful of him during the campaign so far. His appearance was a sign that he's not conceding the Tea Party vote to Rick Santorum or any other candidate.

Don Gonyea, NPR News.

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