Michigan could make or break Romney's presidential bid


DETROIT - Willard "Mitt" Romney always has been conscious of his father's legacy. Indeed, he's been on the same path, exactly four decades behind. George Romney, the hard-charging three-term governor of Michigan, was 40 when his youngest son was born.

Forty years after businessman George was elected governor of Michigan, venture capitalist Mitt was elected governor of Massachusetts. Forty years after George Romney ran for president, his son did the same.

But George Romney's hopes died in the snows of New Hampshire, where, dogged by fallout from his famous remark about having been "brainwashed" by the generals in Vietnam, he dropped out of the race in early 1968. It was a little different for his son.

Mitt Romney only lost, beaten in the Republican primary by Sen. John McCain. He pledged to fight on. But for a former Massachusetts governor to lose in New Hampshire is far worse than it may seem. New Hampshire is considered a virtual Massachusetts suburb. Bill Clinton was seen as winning a technical victory in 1992 when he finished second to Massachusetts' Paul Tsongas.

But Mr. Romney, who spent far more money than any other candidate, lost, five days after he was badly beaten in Iowa. Suddenly, the man many once saw as the inevitable GOP nominee seemed on the ropes. Now, there is general agreement that Michigan is do-or-die for Mitt Romney. "If he can't win here, he ought to end his campaign," said Craig Ruff, the longtime president of the Lansing firm Public Sector Consultants.

Publicly at least, the Romney camp does not agree. But in a telling sign, they have pulled all their advertising from every other state, at least until the Michigan results are known.

Mitt Romney should, on paper, own the Michigan primary. After all, he was born in Detroit. He was a boy when his family moved to Oakland County, back when his father was president of defunct American Motors Corporation. "Michigan will become ground zero in the campaign," he told me last spring.

"I want to win Michigan, I think I can win Michigan, I was born here, and taking a blue state red would mean the White House for me," he said. He was thinking about November. He never dreamed he would have trouble in January. But four days before the Michigan primary, a Romney victory doesn't seem certain at all.

By and large, the GOP establishment is behind Mr. Romney. The older ones have pleasant memories of his father, a straight-talking, sometimes gruff, tell-it-like-it-is guy who won spectacular victories when Michigan was pretty much a solid Democratic state.

But few voters under 50 remember George Romney. The man they do remember is John McCain, the man who beat Mitt Romney this week in New Hampshire. Eight years ago, Mr. McCain took on George W. Bush in another Michigan primary - and beat him easily.

The maverick Arizona senator was helped then by crossover votes from independent and Democratic voters. (Since Michigan has no party registration, everyone is technically independent.)

This time the experts thought that wouldn't happen because Democrats faced a spirited contest of their own. But the Michigan Democratic primary degenerated into a farce. The national party disqualified it because it violated the rules by being held too early.

Most of the candidates took their names off the ballot, including Barack Obama and John Edwards. They not are campaigning here, except Dennis Kucinich. Though party officials urged people to vote for Hillary Clinton or "uncommitted," the national party has said no delegates from Michigan would be seated at this summer's convention in Denver. Given that, there seemed little reason to vote in the Democratic primary - and Mr. McCain hopes to reap the benefits.

Mitt Romney hopes to defy expectations. But something about him seems to put people off. Nobody denies that he looks more like a president than anyone since Warren Harding. But voters are finding him hard to warm up to. One GOP pollster told me that people of all ages and socio-economic groups find him smug and arrogant.

The other GOP candidates can barely hide their own disdain. Ed Rollins, the long-time Reagan political operative, is now working for Mike Huckabee's campaign. Last week, he told the New York Times, "We like John [McCain.] Nobody likes Romney."

After meeting with the former Massachusetts governor, both Detroit newspapers endorsed John McCain.

Last week I interviewed Mr. Romney by phone as he was driving to a campaign event in New Hampshire. He was, as always, carefully controlled. He pledged to make the auto industry competitive again, but avoided specifics as to how he would do that.

He said we needed better health care but not "Hillarycare." He mentioned the need to do more to help the middle class, "the guy earning up to $200,000 a year.'

Most Michigan voters don't have the problems of the guy earning $200,000 uppermost in their minds. George Romney ended his presidential campaign on Feb. 28 of his election year.

Whether his son can last that long is an open question. On Tuesday, the state in which he was born may provide the answer.