By CHARLES BABINGTON, Associated Press
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (AP) — Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is wooing tea partyers in his home state of Michigan with a potentially risky strategy: blasting the auto industry bailout that many people credit with saving the state's most vital industry.
The tactic seems designed to undermine Rick Santorum's popularity with conservatives who dislike government intervention in business, even when the results appear defensible. It also reinforces Romney's image as an experienced capitalist who understands the pain sometimes involved in making companies work.
Santorum's fast rise in national polls has forced Romney to sharpen his criticisms of the former Pennsylvania senator. Santorum says his team will "plant our flag" in Michigan while also campaigning in other states.
A Romney loss in Michigan's Feb. 28 primary would be hugely embarrassing, or worse, to his campaign. His team has promoted an aura of inevitability for months, but Romney has failed to persuade the party's most conservative segments to embrace him.
Romney's father was a top auto executive and three-term governor of Michigan, and Romney still holds big financial advantages over Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul. Thus far, he has bought far more TV advertising time than they have.
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signaled his plans to endorse Romney on Thursday.
And yet, when longtime Michigan political analyst Craig Ruff was asked if a Romney loss here is conceivable, he said: "I'm astounded, but yes." Ruff worked for Republican Gov. William Milliken but now is an independent.
He said he was surprised by how vigorously Romney is criticizing the government rescue of General Motors and Chrysler in 2008-2009.
"Many, many Republicans have ties to the auto industry," through investments or current or former employment, Ruff said. "He's got a lot of explaining to do."
Some GOP activists, however, said Romney's actions make sense. He already was on record opposing the bailouts. So his Tuesday op-ed in the Detroit News gave him a chance to elaborate, they said. And his stance will appeal to business-oriented Republicans as well as more libertarian-leaning voters who oppose government intrusion in general.
"It may be dicey in the general election, but it's not dicey in the primary," said Lansing-based Republican strategist Steve Mitchell. "Republicans opposed the auto bailout. They opposed other bailouts. They oppose bailouts."
A May 2010 poll conducted by EPIC-MRA for the Detroit Free Press found that nearly two-thirds of Michigan adults thought the auto bailout was a good idea. Republicans were more closely divided, with 51 percent calling it a good idea, and 43 percent calling it a bad idea.
Santorum, Gingrich and Paul also criticized the auto industry rescue, but Romney's remarks have drawn more attention because of his ties to the state and the auto industry.
Santorum hopes Michigan's tea party supporters will vote in big numbers, possibly overwhelming Romney's advantage with party insiders. Insurgent candidates have done well here at times. Pat Robertson won the GOP primary in 1988. John McCain beat George W. Bush here in 2000 after then-Gov. John Engler promised Michigan would be Bush's firewall.
Romney made no mention of his GOP rivals or direct references to the auto bailout in an 18-minute speech to several hundred people at a rally Wednesday in Grand Rapids. He stuck to his standard attacks on President Barack Obama's handling of the economy.
The auto bailout started when the Bush administration loaned money to GM and Chrysler to keep them from collapsing during the 2008 financial crisis.
The Obama administration brought the total to $81 billion, and Obama now calls the results a triumph.
"When I took office, the American auto industry was on the verge of collapse. And there were some folks who said we should let it die," Obama said Wednesday in Wisconsin in a veiled swipe at Romney. "With a million jobs at stake, I refused to let that happen."
GM emerged from bankruptcy as a considerably smaller company. It has repaid billions of dollars, but the federal government still holds much of the firm.