Standing before a banner that said “Cut the Spending,” Mitt Romney on Tuesday tried to focus his remarks on how President Obama has harmed the nation’s economy and how he would fix it. But he was frequently drawn off the message of the day by voters, who peppered him with questions about social issues.
Romney, in a tight competition to win this state’s 30 delegates, responded by taking aggressively conservative stances, saying his vice presidential pick would be anti-abortion, touting his work against gay marriage, pledging to pick strict constructionists to serve on the Supreme Court and castigating the Obama administration for launching a war against religion.
“I can tell you as someone who has understood very personally the significance of religious tolerance and religious freedom and the right to one’s own conscience, I will make sure that we never again attack religious liberty in the United States of America if I’m president,” Romney said, in a rare reference to his Mormon faith.
Romney should have home-turf advantage here, having been born in Michigan and the son of a popular former governor, a fact several voters alluded to, with one carrying an old George Romney campaign sign that said “Romney Great for ’68.”
But Romney is in a tight battle with rival Rick Santorum just one week ahead of the Feb. 28 primary, a challenge that state Atty. Gen. Bill Schuette alluded to when he introduced Romney in front of hundreds of voters gathered at a tool and machine shop located in a pivotal swing county an hour away from Detroit.
“What I call this Michigan guy who’s fighting like an underdog in this barn-burner of a campaign that’s closing fast … is the comeback kid,” Schuette said.
After a few days of hitting Santorum on the stump, Romney returned to his prior front-runner pose, not mentioning his rival during his remarks to voters, until one specifically asked him why Santorum was surging when the former Pennsylvania senator was a Washington insider.
“Well you make a good point,” Romney said, noting that Santorum had not been as carefully vetted as the other members of the GOP field and that Santorum repeatedly voted to raise the debt ceiling and for earmarks. “This, I don’t think that’s consistent with the principles of conservatism. I don’t think Rick Santorum’s track record is one of a fiscal conservative.”
He added that Santorum worked as a lobbyist before and after his tenure in the Senate and the House.
“That insider life in Washington, I don’t believe is the kind of change we need in Washington.”
Romney tried to focus his remarks on the economy, offering a preview of an address he plans to deliver Friday at Ford Field. He said he planned to outline tax, spending and entitlement reform policy.
“We have to finally bring these things together in a way that communicates to the American people we know what it takes to get Washington to work so that America can work, so that Michigan can work,” he said.
But Romney was also forced to defend his opposition to the $80-billion auto bailout that many in this state credit with stopping the collapse of the auto industry. A retired GM employee asked about whether private capital would have been available to help the industry, as Romney claimed.
The former Massachusetts governor didn’t answer directly, but said that his support for the company to go through a managed bankruptcy was eventually proved true.
Then-UAW President Ron Gettelfinger “said, ‘No, no, no, they can’t go through managed bankruptcy, no one will buy an American car if they go through bankruptcy,’ ” Romney said. “But you know what, I was right and he was wrong.”