Mitt Romney is on a bus tour across Michigan, hoping to win the votes of the state where he grew up. With primary day Tuesday, Romney seems to have closed the gap in polls with Rick Santorum.
This trip has the feel of those early days campaigning back in New Hampshire, before any votes were actually cast: the long bus rides, the snowy landscape, even the impromptu restaurant drop-ins.
One spot in Mount Clemens, Mich., is aptly named “The Mitt.” Ken Leonard, the owner, says he chose the name for the shape of Michigan — the state looks roughly like a catcher’s mitt. Then a blogger in town had an idea: Romney should stop by the new restaurant that shares his name.
Leonard emailed the campaign, and a few days later, the blue Romney bus pulled up outside.
“I know this is an exciting race for you guys. It’s fun to be in the middle of this race,” Romney said. “I’m planning on winning, by the way.”
The owners gave him a T-shirt that says “Mitt Happens.”
This kind of retail politicking has not been a big part of Romney’s repertoire lately.
Many of the states that have voted recently are just too large to shake everyone’s hand. In fact, Romney started his Michigan day in Detroit, with a big speech in an even bigger venue.
He spoke on the football field where the Detroit Lions play. The applause came from a crowd of 1,200 in a venue built for 65,000. His campaign billed this economic speech as a major policy rollout, but almost all the policies on his list had been revealed earlier in the race.
“Let’s get a tax policy that encourages growth and investment and doesn’t just penalize people for being successful,” he said.
Romney’s last stop of the day was in Kalamazoo, at Western Michigan University. He reminded supporters of his deep family roots in the state, sharing a story about how is “frugal” father checked all over the state for the best deal on a gravesite before settling on Brighton.
He seemed loose and comfortable. After the speech, he spent half an hour taking questions from the audience, which is almost unheard of for Romney.
“I know you really want the nomination in Michigan because since I came home on Monday, I have received nine phone calls,” said audience member Pat Siboda.
She introduced herself as a mother and grandmother, then accused Romney of flip-flopping on abortion.
“You know, you turned your back on your Mormon religion’s pro-life stance,” Siboda said, “just like Ted Kennedy and Nancy Pelosi did — betrayed their Catholic faith.”
He said the pro-life community should be happy that he saw the error of his ways.
“We need people who recognize that pro-life is the way to go, and we’re getting more and more people joining our cause as time goes on,” he said.
This is a sign of the challenges Romney still has to overcome here in his home state. Gary Gaybree, an attorney who supports Romney, is not at all surprised that Romney faces a serious threat from Santorum.
“In my previous life, I was an elected official. I was a prosecutor up in Ionia County,” he says, “and in the Republican primary there is a very vocal, very active, a very conservative element that is even in my opinion somewhat to the right of the right.”
Romney’s bus tour continues Saturday with three stops across Michigan. It was a recipe for success in New Hampshire six weeks ago. Now he hopes these ingredients will help him cook up a similar victory here on Tuesday.