WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney likes to tell people in Michigan he’s one of them — and whether voters see him that way could be crucial in determining his political fate.
Romney, 64, who is in a tense battle for the Republican presidential nomination, grew up in the Detroit area. His father, George, was a popular Michigan governor.
But George Romney left office 43 years ago. And Mitt Romney made his political and business reputation in Massachusetts, rescued the Olympics in Salt Lake City and has homes in New Hampshire, California and elsewhere.
Now, however, Romney is telling voters he’s “a son of Detroit,” and he badly needs the favorite son vote as he fights to win the critical Feb. 28 Michigan primary.
Experts see the local ties as a plus.
“I think it will matter,” said Richard Milliman, George Romney’s former press secretary.
But the links also put enormous pressure on Romney.
“A loss in what could be considered his home state … may be disastrous to his campaign,” said Victoria Mantzopoulos, professor of political science at the University of Detroit Mercy. “The loss of a state that should have been a shoo-in will undoubtedly lead to a loss of campaign momentum and fundraising efforts.”
Romney is willing to try. Last week, he wrote an op-ed in the Detroit News that said, “I am a son of Detroit” who “grew up drinking Vernors,” a popular local ginger ale. He went on to explain how the auto industry bailout was “crony capitalism on a grand scale” and sharply criticized the Obama administration’s efforts to help the ailing industry.
Romney has also hosted a “Welcome Home Rally” in Grand Rapids. He spoke fondly of his father in campaign speeches. And he’s running an ad in which he recalls, “When I grew up in Michigan it was exciting to be here. Remember going to the Detroit Auto Show with my dad. That was a big deal.”
Milliman observed: “I’ve seen more pictures of George Romney in the last month or so than I’ve seen in a long time.”
Romney adored his father, who was governor from 1963 to 1969. On Feb. 7, the day he lost three Republican contests to former Sen. Rick Santorum, Romney reflected on “lessons I learned from Dad. “
He remembered how his father “apprenticed, as a lath-and-plaster carpenter, and he was darn good at it. He learned how to put a handful of nails in his mouth and spit them out, point forward. On his honeymoon, he and Mom drove across the country. Dad sold aluminum paint along the way, to pay for gas and hotels.”
His father, he said, never gave up. He believed in an America where “a lath-and-plaster man could work his way up to running a little car company called American Motors and end up governor of a state where he had once sold aluminum paint.”
Invoking Dad, though, carries risks. George Romney was part of the GOP’s moderate wing, helped create Michigan’s first personal income tax and refused to support conservative Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater in 1964.
“I’m not sure George would agree with a lot of what Mitt is saying,” said Bernie Porn, president of EPIC-MRA, an independent Lansing-based survey research firm.