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In Michigan, Native Son Romney Plays Up Family Ties

Mitt Romney shakes hands with supporters after a town hall meeting at Eagle Manufacturing in Shelby Township, Mich., on Tuesday.
Andre J. Jackson
Mitt Romney shakes hands with supporters after a town hall meeting at Eagle Manufacturing in Shelby Township, Mich., on Tuesday.

Everything about Tuesday's campaign event in southeast Michigan's Shelby Township highlighted that Mitt Romney is a local product running for president.

Songs from Motown and Bob Seger blared. A giant deep-blue Michigan state flag hung stage right. An aide passed out paczki (pronounced "punchkey"), jelly-filled Polish pastries that are a Fat Tuesday tradition in Michigan. Then came the candidate.

"Michigan has gone through a one-state recession and now a national recession," Romney told the audience. "I'm glad to see Michigan coming back — and it is coming back — but no thanks to this president. Everything he has done is making this economy harder to reboot."

Michigan holds its primary next week. Polls show a tight race between native son Romney and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.

Romney is playing up his business experience and his personal ties to the state, where his father was a well-liked governor. Santorum's message is blue-collar conservatism aimed at Tea Party and evangelical voters. He made campaign stops on the other side of Michigan on Monday.

Social Issues Take Center Stage

In a state where the jobless rate is 9.3 percent, Romney kept the focus of his speech on the economy. He only briefly touched on his opposition to the federal bailout that helped General Motors and Chrysler three years ago. He argued again that the car companies could have survived by going through bankruptcy without the federal help.

Audience reaction seemed mixed on that point, but there were big cheers for Romney's criticism of White House economic policies. When it was the audience's turn to talk, their questions were just as likely to be about social issues, though, as the first one was — a query about what a President Romney would do "to protect our religious freedom."

Romney alluded to his own Mormon faith in an answer that was critical of the White House, accusing the president of fighting against religion.

"I can assure you, as someone who has personally understood the significance of religious tolerance, the right to one's own conscience ... we will never again attack religious liberty in the United States of America if I'm president."

Social issues were even more prominent at events Santorum held on the other side of the state Monday.

"It's great to be in west Michigan, where the family conservative values are the strongest of any place in the country," he told supporters.

During a stop at Hope College, a Christian school, Santorum talked at length about the conflict between President Obama and Catholic bishops over contraceptives and health care coverage. And he said the president is attacking the Catholic church.

"It is not just an assault on that church, but an assault on every religion in America," he said. "This happens in China, not America."

Taking Aim At Obama

Santorum also took brief jabs at Romney, calling him inconsistent on issues important to real conservatives. But mostly he went after President Obama on issue after issue, including global warming.

"We need someone who's been out there consistently opposing this supposed climate science of man-made global warming, which it turns out, as we've all studied it, it wasn't climate science ... it was political science," Santorum said.

Santorum recognizes that to win this state, he has to do very well outside of southeast Michigan, which is a Romney stronghold. And Santorum will need a big turnout from Christian conservatives and Tea Party members. At the same time, he has to continue introducing himself to voters.

On that front, he's won over Mark Moore in Muskegon. "To be honest, I was a Newt supporter," said the 47-year-old Moore. "The reason I didn't, at first, like Santorum is because I thought he was a quiet Mr. Nice Guy."

Now, Moore said, Santorum has convinced him otherwise.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Don Gonyea
You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.