Romney Boosts Michigan Bid Facing Tough Fight in Native State

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, seeking to avoid an embarrassing defeat in Michigan’s Feb. 28 primary, is racing to woo party voters by taking on two of his home state’s icons: unions and cars.

Romney, the son of an auto company executive-turned- Michigan governor, has bashed labor bosses at almost every campaign stop in the state this week, vowing to pass laws making it harder for workers to organize -- particularly the powerful United Auto Workers union.

“I’ve taken on union bosses before, and I’m happy to take them on again,” he told a crowd at an office furniture warehouse on Feb. 15 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “I sure won’t give into the UAW.”

Romney also has been citing unions as a major reason for his opposition to the federal bailouts of General Motors Co. (GM) and Chrysler Group LLC -- a position he spelled out in a widely publicized Feb. 14 column in the Detroit News.

Romney’s message is designed to undermine Santorum’s support among Tea Party-oriented voters who dislike government involvement in business -- even when popular with other segments of the public. Romney, 64, is also trying to rebrand himself as a committed fiscal conservative and refute criticism that he changes positions for political gain.

In Michigan, though, it’s a strategy that carries risk.

‘Desperate in Michigan’

“He has little to gain from a frontal assault on the UAW and something to lose,” said Harley Shaiken, a labor professor at the University of California at Berkeley. “Romney appears desperate in Michigan.”

Union membership in the state is on the rise, bucking the national trend. Last year, 18.3 percent of the Michigan workforce was represented by a union, up from 17.3 percent in 2010, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nationwide, union membership was 11.8 percent, down from 11.9 percent in 2010.

More than a quarter of Michigan Republican primary participants in 2008 were from households that included a union member, exit polling showed. Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, won that primary in his failed bid four years ago for the presidential nomination.

In his current race, he stresses his support for right-to- work legislation that would bar agreements making union membership and payment of dues a job requirement.

“We’re to make it a level playing field,” he told a roundtable discussion of self-described Tea Party activists in Monroe, Michigan, yesterday. “We’re going to have right to work.”

Governor Demurs

Yet even Rick Snyder, the fiscally conservative Republican governor of Michigan who endorsed Romney yesterday, has made clear he won’t take up right-to-work legislation in the state anytime soon, saying he considers other issues more pressing.

Other Romney backers similarly shy away from the issue.

“I can’t go there,” said Jack Kirksey, mayor of Livonia, Michigan, when asked about right-to-work legislation.

Snyder last night also said he would rather the auto bailout not be an issue in the campaign.

“I don’t view it as a good discussion to have, but it’s going to happen,” he told reporters after addressing a party dinner in Novi, Michigan. “You’re armchair quarterbacking.”

Santorum, whose wins in three states last week made him the main alternative to Romney in the nomination race, is taking a softer line on unions as he casts himself as the Republican candidate best able to appeal to blue-collar Rust Belt voters.

Private-Sector Unions

Speaking in Detroit yesterday, the former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania voiced his support for private-sector unions, citing a grandfather who was treasurer of his coal mining union.

“The fact that his grandson is running as a conservative Republican is probably causing quite a few flips in the grave for him,” Santorum said.

Michigan, where Romney was born and raised, should have been a slam-dunk for him. Instead, polls show Santorum, 53, gaining support, buoyed by backing from Tea Partiers and evangelical Christians following his victories in the Feb. 7 contests in Colorado, Missouri and Minnesota.

A Detroit News-WDIV poll released yesterday put Santorum ahead in the state, 34 percent to 30.4 percent. The telephone poll of 500 likely Republican primary voters was conducted Feb. 11-13 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.

Romney supporters see attacking Santorum’s record on labor issues as a way to regain ground.

Big Labor’s Favorite

His campaign has tagged Santorum as “big labor’s favorite senator,” citing his 1996 Senate vote against a national right to work law.

The attack “will resonate very strongly in the Republican primary,” said Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, the state chairman of Romney’s campaign. “That appeals to conservative Republicans.”

Romney pressed his case last night in Ohio, one of the 11 states conducting nomination contests on March 6.

In a speech at a Republican Party dinner in Mayfield Heights, Ohio, Romney accused President Barack Obama of “stacking” the National Labor Relations Board with “union stooges.”

“Unions have an important role to play,” he said. “But some of the union bosses get things wrong, and I’m concerned when I watch a president kowtow to the union bosses.”

While joining Romney in opposing the auto bailout, Santorum is trying to use the issue to his advantage. In his speech yesterday to the Detroit Economic Club, he sought to draw a distinction between his stance and that of Romney’s.

Wall Street vs. Detroit

“Governor Romney supported the bailout of Wall Street and decided not to support the bailout of Detroit,” he said, referring to the federal Troubled Asset Relief Program aimed at financial institutions. “My feeling was the government should not be involved in bailouts, period. That’s a much more consistent position.”

Santorum’s comments and Romney’s explanation earlier this week of his position on the auto bailout came amid signs of the industry’s revival.

GM yesterday announced earnings of $9.19 billion in 2011, the largest profit in its 103-year history. Also, the company’s global sales rose 7.6 percent last year to 9.03 million to outpace Toyota Motor Corp. as the world’s top-selling automaker. GM shares gained 9 percent to $27.17 at the close in New York.

Santorum in his speech noted that the federal financial help was started under President George W. Bush toward the end of his tenure in 2008.

“I actually blame President Bush more than I do President Obama,” Santorum said. “President Obama was just following suit.”

Out of Office

Santorum lost his bid for a third Senate term in 2006, and so wasn’t in Congress when lawmakers dealt with the bailout requests as the U.S. grappled with the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

The other remaining Republican presidential contenders -- former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas -- haven’t actively campaigned in Michigan. Gingrich spent yesterday in the Los Angeles area, while Paul held rallies in Idaho and Washington state.

Also yesterday, CNN canceled a debate among the candidates scheduled for March 1 in Georgia, another of the states with a March 6 contest.

The Romney campaign had announced he wouldn’t participate in the debate, saying in a statement he would be “campaigning in other parts of the country.” CNN, in announcing the cancellation, said Paul’s campaign also declined an invitation to the gathering.

To contact the reporters on this story: Lisa Lerer in Farmington Hills, Michigan at llerer@bloomberg.net; Chris Christoff in Detroit, Michigan at cchristoff@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeanne Cummings at jcummings21@bloomberg.net

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