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Michigan Primary A Test Of Romney's Family Legacy

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Michigan Primary A Test Of Romney's Family Legacy

Michigan Primary A Test Of Romney's Family Legacy

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Both Arizona and Michigan hold presidential primaries today. In Michigan, where Mitt Romney was born, the race has been as hard fought as anywhere in the country.

For Romney, the campaign there is personal. He often evokes the Michigan of his youth - when his father, George, ran American Motors and then went on to become a very popular, three-term governor.

NPR's Don Gonyea has this look into whether the family legacy means anything today.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Go to a Mitt Romney event in Detroit or Kalamazoo or Traverse City, and you are guaranteed to hear some Romney family history.

MITT ROMNEY: When Dad ran for governor in 1962, I went in a little Ford van - and I was not 16 yet, so there was another guy with me that drove. We went from county fair to county fair. I think we visited, that year, all 83 Michigan counties.

GONYEA: In modern Michigan politics, George Romney looms large. He was an innovative auto executive. He helped lead a movement to rewrite the state constitution, and modernize state government. Eventually, he became governor. This is from his second inaugural address.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GEORGE ROMNEY: If we are to succeed in our complex objectives, we will need such a bipartisan consensus and dedication; one born in modern terms, on the basis of modern, current, human and social needs, and which recognizes no straitjacket.

GONYEA: It is not unusual to feel the presence of George Romney at Mitt Romney events. In Shelby Township, a 95-year-old man stands and tells the candidate a story about his dad. Another holds up a vintage campaign poster that reads: Romney Great for '68. Its owner is Tim Booth, who works in PR.

TIM BOOTH: I was born and raised in Michigan. I don't have a lot of recollection of George Romney, to be honest with you. In 1968 I was 7, so it's just a history of the state.

GONYEA: And Booth is a fan of the 2012 Romney as well.

BOOTH: He's just not a hometown hero - I think he can be a hero for all Americans.

GONYEA: But the younger you are, the less the Romney name means. Take 41-year-old David Smith, a financial planner. He was at a different event - a Rick Santorum speech at the Economic Club of Detroit. He is not a Michigan native.

DAVID SMITH: Well, no; originally, from Indiana.

GONYEA: OK.

SMITH: Michigan the last 10 years.

GONYEA: So you don't have - kind of all that Romney...

SMITH: I don't have the warm fuzzies for Romney.

GONYEA: Warm fuzz -

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GONYEA: OK, fair enough, fair enough.

SMITH: Good question.

GONYEA: And polls show that is the more typical sentiment - after all, George Romney left office in 1969. He passed away in 1995. Bill Ballenger, who publishes the newsletter Inside Michigan Politics, cites a recent survey where just 26 percent knew that Mitt Romney is a Michigander.

BILL BALLENGER: Otherwise, they didn't even know he had a connection with Michigan. But guess what - 26 percent is a lot more than 0 percent for Santorum and Gingrich and Paul. They have no connection to Michigan at all.

GONYEA: Last week in Lansing, three former aides to Governor George Romney got together to talk about their old boss. Keith Molin sees one, obvious difference between the father and son.

KEITH MOLIN: When George Romney came along, the Michigan Republican Party had established a reputation for being a far right, very conservative, kind of an obstruction force in government. And George Romney came along, and he moved that party from the far right to the middle of the road; a much more moderate organization, a much more moderate political arm.

GONYEA: While Mitt Romney is working hard not to be called a moderate. In his day, George Romney refused to endorse 1964 GOP nominee, Senator Barry Goldwater. Some go so far as to say that if he were active in politics today, the elder Romney would be a Democrat. Former aide Bill Whitbeck, now a Michigan court of appeals judge, reacts to that.

BILL WHITBECK: Frankly, if you were to bring George Romney forward to this day right now, and try to categorize him as liberal or moderate or conservative, I don't think you could do it.

GONYEA: On social issues, Whitbeck says he thinks Romney would be in line with social conservatives today. But on fiscal matters, he predicts Romney would not be one of those Republicans looking to starve the government.

WHITBECK: I don't think he would be what I would call a small-government guy. He would be an effective-government guy.

GONYEA: Fred Grasman, who once lived with the Romney family, says the differences in politics and style between the two Romneys are very real. Where Mitt seems cautious and reserved, George was bold and gregarious. But, Grasman says, there is a very strong, connecting thread.

FRED GRASMAN: They had their family to depend on, and I see that now in both senior and junior - the cohesiveness of the family, and how they stick together.

GONYEA: Both men share that, and a legacy. Michigan voters will tell Mitt Romney today how much that matters.

Don Gonyea, NPR News.

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