Will Michigan Ever Learn To Love Mitt?

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Feb. 27 2012 6:26 PM

Romney’s Awkward Courtship

Michigan experiences Mitt’s charm offensive. Can they learn to love their native son?

Mitt Romney speaks to a crowd.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney at a campaign rally in Rockford, Mich., on Feb. 27.

Photograph by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

FLINT, Mich.—Mitt Romney’s advance team has a simple mission: Make the candidate look like he’s already president. Maybe he was sworn in when you weren’t paying attention. To see him, you had to sign up with the campaign, show up early, prove your harmlessness to the Secret Service, and find a place in a theater-in-the-round set-up where the candidate is flanked by whale-sized American flags.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

Romney showed up in casual chic: dress shirt, blue jeans, dress shoes. The speech took advantage of only a third of the room—curtains clipped off the rest of it—so the crowd, mustachioed security, and media pen were pushed together for maximum effect. (Clearly, the campaign had learned its lesson from the less-than-epic staging of his Friday economic speech.) Romney paced the stage in front of a bleacher full of Kettering University students.

“Kids can’t find work,” said Romney. “This is something I’ve heard Dick Armey say: It used to be that the American dream was owning your own home. Now, the American dream is getting your kids to move out of your home!”

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The Kettering students, serious-looking in matching gray T-shirts, did not laugh. The rest of the crowd did. They were being asked to whipsaw between jokes like this, brief descriptions of what he’d do in office, and patriotic musings on the common man.

“Everywhere I go, I see people who love this country,” said Romney. “I’m proud of the fact that when we perform the national anthem, we put our hands on our hearts.” He put his hand on his heart. “The reason we do that is to honor the blood that has been shed by those who have sacrificed for liberty.”

Romney’s pitch to this crowd was hardly different from the pitch he’d used in Iowa and New Hampshire. The stakes were very different there. In Iowa, he only needed to avoid falling far below his 2008 numbers—he basically tied them. In New Hampshire, he had to rack up a huge vote to prove that he’d gained ground since he lost to John McCain.

Michigan, though—Michigan is different. After Rick Santorum won two caucuses and a “beauty content” (no delegate) primary, he moved ahead of Romney in Michigan primary polls. No one had bested Romney in those local polls since 2009. Santorum adviser John Brabender has said his candidate “already won” here, because he’s forcing Romney to hustle in the place where he was born. A lot of campaign spin is self-evidently ridiculous. Brabender’s spin is not. Even if Romney wins here, Republicans already want to know why he’s struggling.

There’s no new reason. Romney’s weekend blitz of the state took him to wildly different segments of the GOP base. He was very comfortable with one of them: well-groomed, well-heeled Republicans, the kind that run local party organizations and clap awkwardly to Bob Seger songs. The others—the sort of people who either rebelled against the “establishment” in 2010—didn’t hug him so close.

Romney’s Saturday started off well. He was the star of the Ingham County Lincoln Day breakfast, an eggs-and-coffee-and-county-commissioner-placards affair in the dining room of a Lansing, Mich., country club. Before he spoke, Republicans heard “The Star-Spangled Banner” sung by the Old School Fellas, a zoot-suited amateur doo-wop group. “Mitt’s a good, Christian man like I am,” explained Clinton Tarver, wearing the reddest of the zoot suits.

Romney spent five of his 25 minutes reminiscing about the state. “I remember my dad’s first inauguration,” he said. “As I recall, it was a snowy day. A very cold day.” He spotted a friend in the crowd. “You were there! As I recall, they’d just changed the slogan of the state, on license plates. It had been Water Wonderland. They changed it to Winter Water Wonderland. It was hard just to say it!”

He had less to say about the Michigan of 2012, specifically. His stories of economic woe came from people he’d met “all over the country,” like in New Hampshire, where an elderly barber told him he couldn’t quit yet. “I talk to retired couples who thought these would be the best years of their lives. Instead, they have to work.”