Mitt Romney supporters greet the Republican candidate in Lansing, Mich. (Bill Pugliano / Getty Images )
LANSING, Mich. — Mitt Romney is making a play for his native Michigan, which last voted for a Republican for president nearly a quarter of a century ago. His task is made infinitely more difficult because of his opposition to the auto bailouts that many credit with saving the industry, a fact that was illustrated when he took the stage here Tuesday, not far from a GM plant.
As protesters outside the Lansing Community College auditorium where he appeared criticized Romney's opposition to the bailouts, the presumptive GOP nominee was introduced by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican who has called the $80-billion federal loans to GM and Chrysler successful. Neither man raised the matter.
In a state where car is king and where his father led an automotive company before becoming governor, Romney's only remarks about cars were lamenting the demise of Oldsmobile, which had been based in Lansing.
"It was a fine car and a source of pride for the city. It was also a source of a lot of good-paying jobs," he said. "These last few years have been hard on the people of Lansing, and they have been hard on the people of America. In the Obama economy, some of the hardest hit have been those in the middle class."
GM announced in 2000 that it was discontinuing the Oldsmobile brand, and the last car rolled off the assembly line in 2004.
The automobile industry and the bailouts are sensitive issues in the state; voters overall support the bailouts, with GOP voters split over it. Romney's difficulty with the issue arose Monday, when the candidate raised eyebrows when he claimed credit for the auto industry's recovery in an interview with an Ohio television station.
"I'll take a lot of credit for the fact that this industry's come back," Romney said Monday on WEWS-TV in Cleveland, arguing that his call for the companies to go through a managed bankruptcy was eventually the path President Obama took.
"My own view is that the auto companies needed to go through bankruptcy before government help," Romney said. "And frankly, that's finally what the president did."
Given Romney's opposition to the federal loans to GM and Chrysler, Democrats seized on those remarks.
During a call organized by Obama's campaign, United Auto Workers President Bob King described Romney's argument as "absurd."
King noted that Romney had favored having the car companies go through bankruptcy and seek private financing as they restructured. But at the time, the credit markets were frozen and little or no financing was available. King credited the George W. Bush administration for understanding the problem and giving GM and Chrysler a bridge loan in December 2008. Otherwise, he said, the companies would have liquidated.
"What Romney suggests is that car companies should have used private financing to restructure, and that never could have or would have happened," King told reporters during a conference call. "It's disingenuous for him to argue that he called for a managed bankruptcy and claim that is exactly what ended up happening when it didn't."
Former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland argued that it was "incredible" for Romney to take credit for the auto industry's resurgence. "The conversation that we are having in this country right now is about who we are going to elect to lead the country, who we trust, who we can count on, who has our backs," he said, adding that Romney's comments should raise questions about his character.
Romney, meanwhile, tried to use his appearance at Lansing Community College to frame the election as a choice whether to return to old-school Democratic policies.
"President Obama chose to apply liberal ideas of the past to a 21st century America. Liberal policies didn't work back then, they haven't worked during these last four years, and they will not work in the future," Romney told hundreds of supporters. "New Democrats had abandoned those policies, but President Obama resurrected them, with predictable results."
He praised President Clinton for his work during the 1990s, and argued that Obama was Clinton's antithesis.
"President Clinton, remember, he said the era of big government was over. President Obama brought it back with a vengeance. Government at all levels now consumes about 38% of the economy, and if 'Obamacare' is installed, that will rise to about half of the economy," Romney said.
"President Clinton made efforts to reform welfare as we know it. President Obama is trying to tirelessly expand the welfare state, with promises and more programs, more benefits and more spending."
Times staff writer Maeve Reston in Los Angeles contributed to this report.