Traverse City, Michigan — This may be the last state Mitt Romney ever thought he could lose. After all, his father, George Romney, was Michigan’s governor, and Mitt spent his childhood in the state, a fact he weaves into his speeches while campaigning here.
But while Rick Santorum’s lead has evaporated over the last couple of weeks — no doubt in part because of the massive blitz on the airwaves from the Romney campaign and Romney’s super PAC, Restore Our Future — he and Romney remain virtually tied. The Great Lakes State is still very much in play and, with rumblings from the GOP establishment about finding a new candidate to enter the race if Romney can’t manage to prevail in his home state, it has become must-win for Romney.
“He’s fighting like an underdog. We’re closing fast, and he’s not going to stop fighting until Tuesday at 8pm,” says Michigan attorney general Bill Schuette, Romney’s state-campaign chairman. “It’s crunch time. This is a barnburner of a campaign we’re waging here in Michigan.” Romney, adds Schuette, “is a fighter . . . the fighter for Michigan and the fighter for Michigan jobs.”
“He makes Mark Wahlberg look tame,” Schuette claims, alluding to Wahlberg’s role as a boxing champ in 2010 film The Fighter. “This guy is committed to bringing Michigan back and America back, and it’s all about paychecks, paychecks, paychecks.”
But it’s shared ties, not punches, that Romney is relying on to help him connect with Michigan voters. Working to gain momentum in the state, the candidate is touting his local roots. At a Sunday event in Traverse City, a resort town adjoining a bay off Lake Michigan, Romney recalled how Ann Romney’s parents had owned a cottage in another Michigan town, Manistee. “I actually kissed her there,” Romney said, his wife beside him. “Oh yeah, oh yeah. She was 16. I was 18.”
Ann Romney acknowledged the kiss (“my father caught us, by the way”), and spoke affectionately of her childhood in the state. “I loved the Great Lakes. I would swim in Lake Michigan, and I climbed the sand dunes here. And who loves Petoskey stones?” she asked, the audience approvingly cheering her reference to a fossil found along Michigan’s shores. “There’s some people in the country who don’t know what Petoskey stones are. It’s unbelievable.”
Many of Romney’s remarks — delivered beneath a huge banner reading “Cut the Spending” — were fiscal-centered, as he discussed his job-creation and debt-reduction plans. But he briefly targeted Santorum and Newt Gingrich: “The other two sort of leading contenders are folks who spent their life in Washington, working there and being elected officials there,” he said. “I don’t think you can change Washington if you’ve been part of the culture of Washington.”
“The other night at the debate when one of them said that he voted . . . for something he disagreed with,” Romney said, referencing Santorum’s explanation of his vote for the No Child Left Behind Act, “he said he did it to take one for the team. Look, my team is the people of Michigan [and] of America, and I’m going to fight for you.”
Schuette approves of Romney’s tough rhetoric. “I like the example he’s setting in terms of being scrappy, pointing out the differences between him and his opponents,” he says. He cited Romney’s support for Right to Work and opposition to the Davis-Bacon Act — Santorum voted against Right to Work and to uphold Davis-Bacon as a senator, but says he would be for the former and against the latter as president — as key differences between the men. Romney’s views on these issues, Schuette muses, make him an appealing candidate to tea partiers.
During Sunday night’s event, however, Romney makes the case for his candidacy from another angle. “This is a defining time for this country, and you’re going to have to decide who it is who has best shot of replacing Barack Obama,” he says.
It’s an argument that resonates. Greg Lietzow, from Sanford, Mich., prefers Santorum on the social issues, but also wants “a candidate that can win” and thinks “Romney might be that candidate.” Kathy Marks, a retired kindergarten teacher from Traverse City, isn’t thrilled about Romney’s record in Massachusetts, but is also worried about Santorum’s viability, considering his loss in Pennsylvania in 2006: “I am concerned that some of his conservatism, even though I appreciate it, may be against him at the polls in the general election.” Her husband, Dan Marks, who is also still deciding whether to vote for Romney or Santorum, sums up his analysis this way: “Santorum is probably closer in views to me, but at the moment, I still think Romney might be more electable, and if that’s what I finally decide, I think I’d vote for Romney.”
Even if Romney pulls off a win in the state, there are signs that the campaign is exhausted by the drawn-out primary. “It’s going to be a good day Tuesday,” Ann Romney predicts at the Midland County Republican Club luncheon Sunday, “and you’re going to give us wind in our sails to have us go on to the next week’s election, which is just going to be endless and endless, but we’re going to keep going until the job is done.”
At that luncheon, Ann Romney also complains about the media treatment of her husband. “All of us in this room know the media loves Barack Obama. They don’t want anyone who has a chance of defeating him,” she says.
Speaking openly about how it was “getting harder and harder to be cheerful,” she laughingly says, “I am so mad at the press [that] I could just strangle them! And, you know, I think I’ve decided there are going to be some people invited on the bus and some people just aren’t going to be invited on the bus.”
Ann Romney isn’t the only one unhappy about the coverage. Karl Kamena, a Romney supporter from Midland, Michigan, thinks the media is unfairly focusing on Romney’s position changes. “This whole flip-flop thing just absolutely drives me crazy,” he says. “Because if you look at Romney, as I think I have, there hasn’t been a lot of flip-flop-flip.” In other words, Romney has only changed his position once — something, Kamena notes, adults often do as they mature.
“There was a time when I said abortion, that’s not my thing. I didn’t really care about abortion. Well, over the last ten or fifteen years, I came to care about abortion. But when I was in my thirties, I said that’s not my issue, that’s somebody else’s issue,” Kamena says. “That’s basically what I see Governor Romney having done.”
The campaign is optimistic that Tuesday will bring a win. “We feel the wind at our back going into Tuesday, so I think it’s going to be a good night,” predicts Romney deputy campaign manager Katie Gage. She dismisses the possibility that Romney could win the popular vote in Michigan, but lose the delegate count. (The paradox is the result of Michigan’s system, in which delegates are awarded at the congressional district level.) “I think we’re going to have a good night on both fronts,” she says.
Schuette, meanwhile, points to Romney’s resilience. “I think Mitt Romney’s like my Timex watch,” he says. “He takes a licking and keeps on ticking.”
— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.