Gerald Herbert / AP
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, talks to patrons at The Mitt Restaurant during a campaign stop in Mount Clemens, Mich., Friday, Feb. 24, 2012.
DETROIT – For Mitt Romney, the Michigan Republican primary is a matter of expectations.
It’s about waging a campaign against an incumbent president who hasn’t lived up to expectations. It’s about managing expectations for just how grand of a venue would play host to a major economic speech.
And most fundamentally, it’s about meeting and surpassing expectations about how strongly he should perform in Tuesday’s crucial primary being held in a state where Romney was born and raised.
The former Massachusetts governor’s campaign has put all of its chips on the Great Lakes State, hoping it serves Romney the same way primaries in New Hampshire and Florida had done.
He won each of those convincingly, and at a moment of peril for his candidacy. Romney’s victories tamped down dissatisfaction with his candidacy, and helped him lay claim again to being the GOP campaign’s frontrunner.
Michigan isn’t likely to give Romney such a decisive imprimatur. His campaign has deluged the state with advertising and aggressive messaging, just as it had done in New Hampshire and Florida to help dismiss Romney’s challengers at the time.
But Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator who upset Romney in a trio of nominating contests earlier this month, is hanging around with Romney in the polls. Santorum threatens to upend expectations – namely, that Romney would be able to win here comfortably, just as he had done in 2008.
Scott Olson / Getty Images
Members of the Detroit Economic club gather to hear a speech by Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney during a luncheon at Ford Field on Feb. 24, 2012 in Detroit, Michigan.
“I think he’s a strong candidate, no doubt about it. But it’s not going to be handed to him on a silver platter,” said Glory Aiken, an Oakland County Republican deciding between the two candidates.
“There’s a lot of high emotion in this election. There are a lot of people in this country who don’t think we’re heading in the right direction, and that’s powerful stuff,” she said at a Romney speech to Tea Party members Thursday night in Milford, Mich.
Romney makes frequent mention of upbringing in Michigan during his stump speech. He talks about having been born in Harper Hospital, growing up around Woodward and 7 Mile Road, and, yes, autos.
Whether that connection is enough to propel Romney to victory is a bigger question. Fifty-seven percent of likely Republican primary voters said in a Detroit Free Press/WXYZ poll released this week that they don’t view Romney as a Michigander. Those voters break for Santorum said Bernie Porn, the EPIC-MRA pollster who conducted the survey.
Romney is struggling in particular with conservatives in the state, who favor Santorum in a familiar retread of a narrative in previous primaries.
“The perception of him as a moderate is strong with me,” said Tom Petiprin of Lapeer, Mich. “When Johnny McCain endorsed him – that was almost the kiss of death for my vote. But I’m trying to be more open minded. “
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The crowd Thursday evening was composed of more of the white, middle-class voters Romney will need on Tuesday (and for which Santorum is aggressively competing.)
The audience was quite different on Friday at a cavernous Ford Field, at a speech hosted by the Detroit Economic Club, right around the 30-yard-line where the Lions play in the fall. Romney made reference to the well-heeled audience by referencing toward them during a portion of his tax speech talking about limiting deductions for high-income Americans.
The speech was moved here after a record sellout of tickets for the event, but members of the economic club were unable to find an intermediate venue. The speech was slated to be the former unveiling of Romney’s tax plan, though he outlined most of it earlier in the week. Applause for it died in the cavernous, mostly empty stadium.
He headlined the speech by noting that Obama had failed to meet expectations.
“That deep confidence in a better tomorrow is the basic promise of America. But today, that promise is being threatened by a faltering economy and, in my view, a failed president,” he said.
And later, setting expectations for himself, responding to a question about which Republican had the best chance of beating Obama: “I not only think I have the best chance, I think I have the only chance.”
To accomplish that, Romney is relying on a similar brew of voters that he had courted in New Hampshire and Florida: those who believe he is, indeed, the best candidate to unseat the Democratic president.
While speaking to supporters in Michigan on Friday, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney reveals that his wife drives 'a couple of Cadillacs.'
“I probably will give him my vote, because I think he’s the strongest to beat Obama,” said Kathy Kubik, of Brighton, Mich. “The debate last night, it might have helped.”
Michael Woods, also of Brighton, agreed: “I just feel that not only from a conservative standpoint but once he gets the nod and gets in the general election, the election is going to be won among independent voters. Of the four candidates we have left here, to me, personally, I think Mr. Romney meshes well into both the conservative side and the independent side.”
But it’s been self-inflicted wounds by Romney that have most compromised his status as the most electable Republican.
Media were quick to note that, in an aside about American cars, Romney noted that his wife, Ann, drives a Cadillac – “a couple of them, actually.”
And the tens of thousands of empty seats in the backdrop invited comparisons to instances when Obama filled stadiums with exuberant audiences in his 2008 Democratic convention speech.
But with four days until the primary, Romney still has his chance with voters like Ingrid Rowe, an undecided Republican from the suburban Detroit area. She said she had hoped to hear “something convincing – something that has not been part of the talking points so far” from Romney.
“I am aware of the political maneuvering that goes on, and I wanted to get a feel,” she said.