FRANKENMUTH, Mich. – Now the likely Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney was back home in Michigan on Tuesday — where, he says, the "trees are the right height."
"I'm going to win Michigan, with your help!" Romney told the crowd gathered outside the sprawling Bavarian Inn Lodge in this resort town. "If I am lucky enough to be elected president, I'll be the first president in American history to have been born in Michigan."
Flying home on his campaign plane Monday night, Romney joked about a past comment that drew some ridicule — and repeated it for his traveling press corps. "When we land, look around, and you'll see the trees are the right height," he said, to laughter. Asked if carrying the state in November would have special meaning, Romney said: "If I win in Michigan, then I become the president, and that would mean a lot to me personally."
Romney is the former governor of Massachusetts, but he was born in Michigan and raised in the suburbs of Detroit. His father, George Romney, ran a car company — American Motors Corp. — and went on to run the state as governor.
In 1968, George Romney failed to win the Republican presidential nomination, a prize his son is set to be officially awarded at the Republican National Convention in August. It's been a long journey that began nearly six years ago, when Mitt Romney launched his unsuccessful bid for the 2008 GOP nod.
Michigan is one of several states that could make the difference in November. It's not on his campaign's list of top targets — that's reserved for what the campaign sees as traditionally Republican states like Virginia and North Carolina and swing states like Ohio and Florida.
But it's one of a number of Rust Belt states President Barack Obama won in 2008 and where Romney's campaign team sees an opportunity.
"There's another level of states that are all states that Obama won last time," said deputy campaign manager Katie Packer Gage, a Michigan native. "And he won't win if he doesn't win them again."
Romney faces an uphill climb in Michigan. There's a strong Democratic base in Detroit, and he's already struggling to explain his opposition to the federal bailout that saved General Motors and Chrysler.
Romney started Tuesday in Frankenmuth, where he participated in a round-table discussion with small-business owners and then held an outdoor rally. He stopped at the Sweetie-licious pie shop in the afternoon and made an unannounced detour to an ice cream shop in Holland, where he said his campaign is "thoroughly vetting" Sen. Marco Rubio for vice president. He concluded his five-day bus tour on the shores of Lake Michigan. At each stop, he criticized Obama's energy policies but steered clear of mentioning the auto bailouts.
Romney's campaign has been filled with reminders of his Michigan roots. George Romney's photo was tacked to a wall in the campaign bus during the primaries. Supporters come to campaign rallies armed with Romney '68 memorabilia and stories about volunteering on his father's presidential campaign.
The Republican presidential challenger also has talked about his love for Vernors, a distinctive ginger ale that's popular in Michigan and has strong carbonation that sometimes prompts sneezing. And there are the cars — the product of the industry that's driven Michigan's culture and economy. Romney loves them, and easily recalls exactly what he was driving during special moments in his life. On the campaign trail, he frequently mentions the Rambler, the car his father seized on as a way to revive a struggling American Motors.
In Troy, Ohio, on Sunday, Romney climbed into the front seat of an immaculately maintained 1961 Rambler owned by 20-year-old Michael Scheib. "I've got a '63, but it's not in as good condition," Romney told Scheib as the young man took his burger order at the local hamburger shop.
"Brings back memories," he told reporters afterward.
Still, cars caused Romney some problems before the Feb. 28 Michigan primary. During one event, Romney mentioned that his wife, Ann, drives "a couple of Cadillacs," a comment that helped paint him as out of touch with Americans struggling in a bad economy.
And while Romney's opposition to federal support for GM and Chrysler wasn't a big issue in the GOP primary, Democrats continue to criticize him for it. Romney has struggled to clarify his position, saying that he supported the managed bankruptcy that eventually restructured GM. Still, he was opposed to using federal money, and attacked the bailouts during the primary campaign.
There are already signs he plans to soften his tone. "He's going to acknowledge, as he has, that President Obama and he ultimately shared the same goal, which was to see the auto industry survive and thrive," said Gage, the deputy campaign manager. "They just had different ways of going about it. He's pleased to see that it does seem to be getting stronger."
Romney steered clear of the issue during his early events Tuesday. Instead, he and his wife told stories about growing up in Michigan.
"People don't know, like, how wonderful it is to be from Michigan," Ann Romney said, to cheers from the crowd. She held up her hand, as Michiganders do, to help outsiders understand its mitten-shaped geography. "I love coming here and showing the hand."
At their final stop, on the shores of Lake Michigan in Holland, both Mitt and Ann Romney kicked off their shoes and walked through the sand down to the water. Holding hands, they walked into the water.
Ann had said earlier: "Lake Michigan! Yay!"
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