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Published: Sunday, 1/20/2008

Promise made in Michigan could backfire on Romney

BY TOM TROY
BLADE POLITICS WRITER

When John McCain won New Hampshire and Mike Huckabee won Iowa, they came away from those states free and clear, ready to move on to the next state battle for convention delegates.

Mitt Romney's victory in the Michigan primary last Tuesday kept him in the Republican race - but it also locked him into a commitment to the state and its troubled auto industry.

Some say Mr. Romney's blatant promise to help reverse Michigan's "one-state recession" implied a government bail-out that conflicts with conservative Republican principles.

Others say the candidate understands the emerging need for Washington to have a fair industrial policy, and will make it happen.

Mr. Romney won the Michigan primary with 39 percent of the Republican vote; Mr. McCain had 30 percent and Mr. Huckabee won 16 percent.

The well-fought campaign, which brought all three leading contenders to Michigan to woo voters, has linked the fortunes of Mr. Romney, 60, and the Big Three automakers in a way that recalls the federal bailout of the ailing Chrysler Corp. in 1979.

With 137,000 jobs in jeopardy, Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca got the government to agree to guarantee $1.5 billion in loans to help Chrysler recover. He battled conservatives who felt it was dangerous meddling in the private sector.

Nearly 30 years later, an entire industry needs help from the federal government, although exactly what form that help should take hasn't been made clear. According to one analyst, the hard-nosed free-marketers who run the auto companies would dearly love to see universal health insurance.

Mr. Romney didn't offer many specifics. But for a candidate who is trying to position himself as the most conservative of the front tier of candidates, he seemed to promise a lot.

"Romney does make this a purple state," said veteran Michigan pollster Ed Sarpolus of Lansing. "What I didn't expect was that he would give up his Republican values. How's he going to keep his promises on the national stage? He can't be a Republican and say he's going to spend $20 billion."

In his speech to the Detroit Economic Club, Mr. Romney accused Washington lawmakers of neglecting Michigan, and imposing unfunded mandates,including the recent measure signed by President Bush that

requires the raising of fuel efficiency standards.

He called for an increase in federal support for research and development in energy, fuel technology, materials science, and automotive technology from $4 billion to $20 billion.

He criticized Mr. McCain for backing a bill that would have pushed to cap and trade greenhouse gas emissions, which Mr. Romney called a "job killer." And he promised to bring representatives from the automotive industry, unions, Congress, and the state of Michigan together in his first 100 to come up with a plan to "rebuild America's automotive leadership."

David Cole, chairman of the Automotive Research Center, a think tank spun off from the University of Michigan to study the auto industry's future, said what Mr. Romney was talking about were things like a research and development tax credit, inequity in trading relationship, and the impact of regulations.

"Any hint of a bailout similar to the Chrysler deal is impossible," Mr. Cole said. "It's really far broader than the auto industry. He understands how a market-based economy works. He would work with the industry to do what it takes."

Mr. Romney is telling Republicans in other states he can swing Michigan into the GOP category in November, something that hasn't happened since 1976 when another native son, the late President Gerald Ford, was on the ballot.

"The key is, I can win Michigan," Mr. Romney told Fox News interviewer Sean Hannity Wednesday night.

"I'm committed to fighting for every good job in this country and Michigan and across the country, and that connection I have to the state is just enough to help bring people who are normally thinking to vote toward the Democratic side to vote for me," he said.

Mr. Sarpolus challenged that assertion, saying exit polls showed no movement of Democrats or independents to Mr. Romney. "All he was able to do was win his base," Mr. Sarpolus said. "John McCain has a better chance of getting Democrats to vote for him than Mitt Romney."

The name Romney is as familiar to Michiganders of baby-boomer age and older as that of Henry Ford. His father was president of the American Motors Corp. and was governor of the state. But the younger Mr. Romney left Michigan to go to college and never moved back.

At a stop in Grand Rapids, he emphasized his connection with Michigan, knowingly commenting that his listeners probably could tell a Ford from a Dodge from a Chevrolet.

A comment by Mr. McCain on the opening day of the Michigan campaign provided a chance for Mr. Romney to close the deal.

Mr. McCain told a Grand Rapids rally that he was "aware" of the spiraling loss of manufacturing jobs and vowed to send residents to community colleges for retraining. But, he said, the truth was that "some of those jobs aren't coming back."

Mr. Romney seized on Mr. McCain's "straight talk" as an example of Washington's pessimism and indifference to Detroit.

"A lot of Washington politicians are aware of Michigan's pain, but they haven't done anything about it," Mr. Romney said. "There are some people who don't think there's a future for the domestic automobile industry. They think the industry and its jobs are gone forever. They are wrong."

Contact Tom Troy at: tomtroy@theblade.com or 419-724-6058.



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