DETROIT – Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney didn't back down Thursday from his opposition to a multibillion-dollar federal bailout for General Motors and Chrysler, even as Michigan autoworkers protesting his campaign appearances pointed to the companies' resurgence as a sign Romney was wrong.
At campaign stops in and around Detroit, the Michigan native said the automakers should have gone through a private bankruptcy without the federal aid.
"Some people believe in bailouts. I believe in the process of the law," the businessman and former Massachusetts governor told reporters. "The idea of just writing a check, which is what the auto executives were asking for, was not the right course ... It would have been best had the auto companies gone through the bankruptcy process without having taken $17 billion from government."
Although Romney won his first and only 2008 presidential primary in Michigan, he has run into a more skeptical reception during his first campaign swing through the state since kicking off his 2012 campaign a week ago.
On Thursday, dozens of autoworkers and Democrats protested outside a restaurant in a Detroit suburb as Romney spoke inside, eager to remind voters of his position.
"For a guy whose father basically ran Michigan to not know the importance of the industry, and to come here and ask for money, I just don't understand," said Larry Ring, 52, a Ford electrician from Wayne County's Canton Township. Romney's late father, George, led American Motors from 1954 to 1962 before he became governor in the 1960s.
Michigan Democratic Chairman Mark Brewer also was outside the restaurant, claiming that if the presidential hopeful had gotten his way, "the auto companies would be out of business."
Nevertheless, Romney got a warm reception from diners inside the Senate Coney Island. He paid in cash for scrambled eggs, potatoes and toast at the counter before spending half an hour greeting voters. He signed a baseball and a copy of the Detroit Free Press with his photo on the front page for Lawrence Taylor, a 55-year-old retired state health care worker from Oakland County's Commerce Township. The longtime autograph collector also has the signature of Romney's father.
Sherwin Collins, a 77-year-old retired Wayne State University administrator, gripped Romney's hand and told him he'd attended one of his father's campaign events during the elder Romney's short-lived 1968 presidential campaign.
"He was a superstar in those days," Collins said.
Mitt Romney's roots — he grew up in Detroit — and residual warm feelings for his late father could give him an edge in Michigan. On Thursday, he spoke of those ties and his "love" for the auto industry and American cars.
The auto industry bailout may be a tough issue here for any Republican in the presidential race, since many GOP leaders have blasted it as an example of the government's fiscal irresponsibility.
Democrats, including President Barack Obama, have trumpeted the federal intervention as a triumph, stressing that the companies are now doing well after going through bankruptcy and then restructuring. Chrysler has repaid most of the $10.5 billion in taxpayer money that it received. GM has paid back just over half of its $50 billion in aid and is regaining market share. Together the companies have added about 50,000 jobs nationwide. The White House says the bailout ultimately will cost taxpayers $14 billion, far less than expected.
Industry officials and others argue that a federal rejection would have led to liquidation and the loss of more than a million jobs nationwide.
Although Romney and Obama differ on the auto bailout, Michigan Rep. Thaddeus McCotter — who's contemplating his own Republican presidential run — criticized Romney for being too similar to the Democratic president on issues such as health care and bailing out the financial services sector.
"The people who are struggling to get this economy going ... will see that President Obama and Mr. Romney are less rivals than running mates," the congressman said in a written statement.
In his Michigan appearances, Romney criticized Obama for the slow pace of the economic recovery in Michigan and the U.S.
"The economy overall has been terribly managed by the president. I don't think there's any way he can defend his economic record," Romney told reporters.
He talked up his background as a business consultant and venture capitalist, saying it gives him the skills to help reverse the job loss that has given the state a 10.2 percent unemployment rate. The message echoes one used by former computer executive Rick Snyder in his successful 2010 campaign for Michigan governor. Snyder and Romney didn't meet during Romney's visit.
His advisers have said Romney is counting heavily on winning Florida and Michigan, and he had no trouble attracting supporters to fundraisers Tuesday and Wednesday in Grand Rapids and the well-heeled Detroit suburbs of Grosse Pointe and Birmingham.
He also had a light moment Thursday when speaking to students at Bizdom U, a center in Detroit for teaching young adults to be entrepreneurs. Asked by an official if he'd be willing to return at a later date to serve as a mentor, Romney joked, "It's conceivable that in 18 months, I will need a job."
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