Members of the Detroit Economic Club gather at Ford Field in Detroit for… (Scott Olson, Getty Images )
Reporting from Detroit and Lincoln Park, Mich. — The leading Republican candidates for president aimed contrasting economic pitches Friday at voters in Michigan's tight primary contest — to differing and occasionally eyebrow-raising results.
Mitt Romney highlighted his agenda Friday before the Detroit Economic Club, but ended up diverting attention with an offhand reference to his family's abundant collection of cars. It was another in a series of Romney remarks that have complicated his efforts to connect with voters who are suffering economically.
The candidate, the son of a former auto executive and three-term governor of Michigan, was explaining his roots as "a car guy" to the crowd gathered on the artificial turf of Ford Field, surrounded by tens of thousands of empty seats.
"I drive a Mustang and a Chevy pickup truck," he said. "Ann drives a couple of Cadillacs actually. And I used to have a Dodge truck."
Campaign aides said Ann Romney had Cadillac SRXs at their homes in Massachusetts and California. (They own a third home in New Hampshire). One is a 2007 model; the other is a 2010.
Romney's Democratic rivals quickly pounced on the comment — and on the scene at the football stadium, which was picked by the Detroit Economic Club after tickets for Romney's event were sold out in 90 minutes.
"Judging from pictures," President Obama's campaign advisor David Axelrod tweeted, "looks like Mitt pinned himself … inside the 20 [yard line]."
Romney's offhand remarks took focus away from his criticism of the "Obama economy," a major theme of his speech. He promised that his tax plans would help revive small businesses in Michigan and across the country.
"This is not exciting and barn-burning, but it's important," he told the crowd. Romney has proposed cutting Americans' income tax rates by 20% and lowering the corporate tax rate from 35% to 25%. He has said he would slash spending to ensure that his plans don't add to the federal deficit, but has not offered detailed cuts.
"Let's have a tax code that encourages growth and investment and doesn't just penalize people," he said.
His chief challenger, Rick Santorum, has adopted a harder-edged populist tone in advance of Tuesday's primary. His latest campaign ad promotes his "Made in America" stimulus plan for manufacturing and attacks Romney for "turning his back on Michigan workers."
At a Knights of Columbus hall in the working-class Detroit suburb of Lincoln Park, Santorum repackaged his agenda into what he said would be his top 10 priorities for the first 100 days of his administration — though he didn't get through the list in his 55 minute-speech.
The former Pennsylvania senator called for relaxing restrictions on energy production in order to hold down gasoline prices. He outlined his proposal to eliminate the corporate tax on manufacturers and other incentives that he said would be "great for Detroit," the auto industry capital. He also called for cutting the corporate tax rate in half, so "the little guy and the big guy" would pay the same rate.
His proposals would "create economic freedom, the opportunity to get a job, especially for those at the bottom of the economic ring to be able to rise in society, with energy, manufacturing and other types of jobs where we make things and create things in America," Santorum told a sparse crowd of fewer than 200 people that included a rare sight at a political rally: a dozen nuns in white and black habits.
The leading GOP contenders are in a tight battle in Michigan, with polls released Friday showing Santorum slipping behind Romney. The surveys, conducted Thursday night, indicated that Santorum had lost ground among supporters of the tea party movement, who may have been turned off by his Wednesday debate confession that his Senate votes sometimes betrayed his conservative convictions. Santorum and Romney are to appear separately at a tea party event in Troy, Mich., on Saturday.
Romney, at an evening stop at the Mitt Restaurant, a yet-to-open Michigan-themed bar and grill in Mount Clemens named for the state's catcher's mitt shape, drew attention for the second day in a row to Santorum's debate performance.
"I think that last debate we had the other night was kind of revealing," he said. He went on to mock Santorum's explanation of his vote for the "No Child Left Behind" law that he now opposes. "When you're part of the team, sometimes you take one for the team, for the leader, and I made a mistake," Santorum had said.
But Santorum, interviewed Friday on Fox during a fundraising swing through the Houston area, aggressively defended his conservative credentials.
"For Mitt Romney to attack me for not being conservative is laughable," he said. "When I was out there fighting No Child Left Behind, he was out there supporting and going to Planned Parenthood fundraisers."
Reston reported from Detroit and West from Lincoln Park.