Politics & Policy

Romney Finds His Voice

The economics of Michigan.

DetroitIn a Michigan race that is coming down to the wire, Mitt Romney senses that — to borrow a phrase from another comeback candidate across the aisle — he has “found his voice.”

And that’s not the only thing Republicans here in the auto capital are borrowing. As Romney rides to rescue the auto industry from his global-warming-panicked GOP opponents, the Republican field invites scrutiny as to how much the two parties’ candidates differ on Big Government solutions for auto-related woes.

Romney’s battle cry for Michigan jobs has come in the nick of time. Inspired by McCain’s straight-talking resurgence, Michigan voters have been packing his campaign rallies. But the trouble with straight-talkers is they have a tendency to shoot themselves straight in the foot, and McCain gave Romney just such an opening late last week.

Speaking to an audience about Michigan jobs lost overseas, McCain said those jobs “are not coming back.” McCain’s words are certainly economically debatable, but Romney saw a political opportunity in a state buffeted by 7.4-percent unemployment.

“I’m not going to be one of those who writes off jobs in Michigan,” roared Romney, and voters who gave McCain a healthy 7-11 point margin following New Hampshire seem to have responded. Polls have tightened considerably since Romney hit his new stride, with a Reuters/Zogby poll released Tuesday showing McCain at 27 percent, Romney at 24, and Huckabee 15.

“He seems to be finally getting some synergy between his message and his organization,” says veteran Michigan political analyst Bill Ballenger, citing Romney’s previous inability to translate a formidable state political infrastructure into electoral success.

Romney carried his jobs into Detroit Monday where he, McCain, and Mike Huckabee were touring the world-renowned Detroit International Auto Show.

Speaking before a Detroit Economic Club luncheon, Romney played Washington outsider, hammering McCain and lawmakers for being “disinterested” in Michigan’s plight and imposing “an anvil” of “unfunded mandates” on Detroit’s Big Three. He further dogged McCain, a global-warming true believer, for pushing cap-and-trade legislation which Romney called a “job killer.”

Romney was pressing a point that resonates here with Republican voters. They don’t trust McCain’s lip-synching of Al Gore on the environment. At a suburban Detroit forum hosted by the conservative Americans for Prosperity Saturday, McCain was actually booed for his embrace of global warming. Romney, like George Bush in 2000, excels in these forums and is a favorite to win among Republicans.

But Romney’s problem is among independents and crossover Democrats in a state notorious for both. With the Democratic non-primary Tuesday, it’s that potential 25 percent of the vote — which McCain won by 3-1 margins against Dubya — that holds the wildcard.

Michiganians love authenticity, an issue Romney has fumbled badly with his by-the-numbers, flip-flopping candidacy while competing against McCain and Huckabee, the authenticity twins. Mac & Huck (back in the state after a weekend seeding South Carolina soil) have played here to overflow crowds, while Romney’s support has been decidedly ordinary.

So Romney keeps hammering autos and jobs, hoping that issues are his salvation in a state desperate for answers.

But it’s the answers Romney, McCain, and Huckabee give that should give conservative voters nationally pause about these candidates. While Romney’s opposition to Washington fuel-mileage mandates establishes his conservative credentials, the fact is all three of these candidates propose solutions that are more Left than Right.

Liberally wielding taxpayer dollars, Romney takes a page from Jimmy Carter’s synfuels boondoggle and Bill Clinton’s fruitless Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles when he boasted to the Economic Club that he would “rebuild America’s automotive leadership” by increasing to $20 billion — from $4 billion — federal support for energy and automotive technology R&D.

But if Romney sounds like Bill Clinton, McCain and Huckabee sound like Leonardo DiCaprio.

Before taking his turn touring the auto show Monday, McCain told a Detroit radio program “global warming is important. And whether it’s happening or not. . . we still should go ahead with green technologies which all make money!”

Apparently, McCain knows something the greatest minds in the automotive business don’t, which is why he’s had to force his green notions on them via a national 35 mpg mandate. Automakers are reeling in the face of the regulation because, in fact, alternative fuel technologies have not proven themselves profitable.

In a moment of decidedly crooked talk, McCain told the radio program that “I have talked with the Detroit auto executives, and they say: Look, we can do this.”

In fact, the Big Three and Toyota fought to the bitter end against Washington’s draconian mandates (one GM official calls them “Soviet-style central planning”) estimated to cost $85 billion.

Close as Michigan is between the three Republican candidates here, the state has also betrayed how close the two parties’ leaders have become on industrial policy and climate regulation.

Henry Payne is a writer and editorial cartoonist for the Detroit News.

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