Romney’s softer side: flaunting his home state appeal in Michigan

Rachel Rose Hartman

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich.-- As Mitt Romney surveyed a supportive rally audience, packed tight on the concrete floor of Compatico furniture systems' warehouse on Wednesday night, he began to notice some familiar faces.

"There's another guy from my high school," said Romney (interrupting his own campaign speech) who was born and raised in Michigan where his father served as governor. "I see another gal," he soon added. "This really brings back memories."

Then he went a step further.

"Any old girlfriends here?" he asked as females in the crowd shrieked with surprise and delight. "Oh!" he said in response to their reaction. "Let's be careful. Ann's not here today," he said, referring to his wife. "Don't tell!"

Ever since opponent Rick Santorum, former Pennsylvania senator, swept Colorado, Missouri and Minnesota's contests Feb. 7, polls have shown Santorum cutting into and even besting Romney's home state advantage in Michigan's Feb. 28 primary.

But as the candidates move closer to Feb. 28 when 30 delegates are at stake after Republican National Committee penalties, Romney is seeking to close and overcome that gap. His decision to spend Wednesday night in Grand Rapids was a testament to his desire to keep up appearances there, and his stop paid off.

Gov. Rick Snyder announced Thursday his endorsement of Romney, highlighting Romney's business background as well as his connections to Michigan. "He has deep ties to our state," said Snyder in a statement. "Mitt understands the challenges confronting Michigan as few Americans do."

Romney has been taking direct aim at Santorum in recent days, labeling him a "Washington insider."

But there was no talk of Santorum-- or any of his opponents-- from Romney Wednesday night at his public rally and a preceding economic roundtable with Michigan business owners. Instead, there was a lot of home state appeal to be spread around.

In a speech marked by attacks against President Obama-- blaming him for Michigan's slow recovery, energy dependence, the growing deficit, health care confusion, and weakening international relations--Romney played up why Michigan's economy personally means so much to him, appealing to the crowd with laughter and jokes.

"I've visited every county in Michigan-- I think more than once," Romney said. "[For] my dad's campaign and my mom's campaign I'd go to the county fair. So I didn't always see the best of your county, but I saw it..." he said, pausing, as the audience laughed.

Romney then shared what he called an "embarrassing" story about his father's visit to Mt. Pleasant, Mich. for a Fourth of July celebration. "My dad got onto the microphone-- the whole town, you know, they're celebrating-- he said 'well it sure is great being here in Mt. Clemens on the Fourth of July.'" The audience here at Compatico roared with laughter. Romney said his mother tried to correct his father by saying "Pleasant," to him. Instead, "he said, 'It sure is pleasant here in Mt. Clemens.'"

And the audience here responded again with hearty laughter.

Throughout Romney's speech, Romney addressed the economic state in Michigan. Reports say the state is beginning to rebound, but Romney argued recovery would have been faster had President Obama's policies not stymied growth.

"Almost everything he's done has made it harder for the economy to reboot," Romney said of the president, claiming Obama's favoritism for unions and business allies as well as his policies and regulations further damaged recovery.

Romney took  time prior to his rally to sit down with 10 area business and economic leaders for a roundtable discussion in front of the press on the state of Michigan's economy to ask for their advice on how to aid the state as president.

The guests, seated on stools around a cardboard-covered work table in a back corner of Compatico's warehouse, mentioned that economic and business uncertainty, wasteful spending, and the administration's labor ties were among the issues most detrimental to the state's business community.

"What we need more than anything is certainty," one businessman told Romney.

Though the roundtable guests and rally audience were outwardly very supportive of Romney here Wednesday night, waving signs, laughing and applauding throughout his speech and lining up for autographs and photos afterwards, some attendees revealed to Yahoo News they showed up simply because they have ties to Compatico, not necessarily because they are huge fans of Romney.

"I don't know enough yet to be a serious Romney fan, but I'm starting to pay more and more attention because it's important," Jill Hulswit of Grand Rapids (whose father is a Compatico employee) told Yahoo News. She said Romney's home state-appeal spoke to her. "It's good 'cause he's one of us," Hulswit said, but added that Romney's stances on health care and veterans issues are what she is finding most appealing about the candidate.

Melanie Nyahoda, a Compatico employee from Wyoming, Mich. expressed a similar sentiment to Yahoo News, saying she finds Romney's ties to Michigan "neat" and "cool," " but I just want to see somebody that's gonna do a good job no matter where they're from," she said.

Nyahoda said the message that resonated most with her from the speech was Romney's proposal to transform America not by changing, but by returning to the country's roots. "I think that speaks volumes," she said. "I think the American people really want to do that."

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