Mitt Romney campaigns in Commerce, Mich., in August. He has spent more time… (Bill Pugliano, Getty Images )
UTICA, Mich. — On a busy midweek evening at the Shamrock, a homey brick pub in this blue-collar town 20 miles north of Detroit, owner Joe Mayernick described President Obama's federal auto bailout as a lifesaver for the region.
"I think we all remember the famous op-ed Mitt wrote in the New York Times: 'Let Detroit Die,'" said Mayernick, 60, greeting his regulars — teachers, autoworkers, engineers — who stopped in for a drink after work. When he is reminded that the headline on GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney's 2008 essay actually said, "Let Detroit go bankrupt," Mayernick, a Democrat, shrugged. "That's how I remember it. I don't think he has a chance."
At a nearby table, Republican Ken Sikora, 52, had a take different take.
"If you look at the whole story, Mitt Romney wanted to go through channels, go through bankruptcy, but it was never allowed to get to that point," said Sikora, a longtime Utica city councilman who owns a glass and mirror business. "He didn't want to put Detroit high and dry. We still have a GM that owes the government a lot of money, and they are really doing no better than they were before."
Here in America's struggling industrial heart, it's easy to find clashing opinions on the multibillion-dollar 2009 rescue. The narrative that prevails will probably determine who wins Michigan and its 16 electoral votes.
For some months, shifting polls gave Republicans hope that Michigan, which voted Democratic in the last five presidential elections, might turn into a November battleground, especially in light of Romney's ties to the state. That was good news for Republicans, of course, but also, paradoxically, for Democrats here, who fretted as resources and attention were redirected to true tossup states.
But Romney's recent stumbles and the perception that he is not a champion of workers have taken a toll in this manufacturing state. In many surveys, Obama has pulled ahead here, particularly among women. With less than six weeks until the election, the outlook is troubling for Romney, despite him being a native son with deep roots in the auto industry.
Economically, after a dreadful decade, the state is tottering toward a better place. For four years, Michigan had the nation's highest unemployment rate, but early this year it dipped to just above the 8% national rate. Though the rate has since ticked up to 9.4%, polls show Michiganders expressing some optimism. In 2011, two years after two of three major automakers declared bankruptcy, all three were profitable for the first time since 2004.
In a visit in the spring to the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Obama hammered that theme. "I placed my bets on American workers," the president said. "The American auto industry is back."
Romney has spent more time than Obama here. He visited in June, then returned with running mate Paul D. Ryan on the eve of the Republican convention in Tampa, Fla., drawing a huge crowd — nearly 10,000 strong — to a farm in Oakland County, home to some affluent suburbs, including Romney's hometown of Bloomfield Hills.
Romney spoke about his late father, George Romney, once the chief executive of American Motors and a three-term Michigan governor who last won in 1966. Republicans say the Romney name still packs emotional resonance, but Democrats disagree, countering that no Romney has won a meaningful election in this state in nearly 50 years.
(This is not for lack of trying: Failed bids include Romney's mother Lenore's quest for the U.S. Senate in 1970, his former sister-in-law Ronna Romney's U.S. Senate races in 1994 and 1996, and his older brother Scott's run for the GOP nomination for attorney general in 1998. Even Mitt, they recall, barely defeated Rick Santorum in the February GOP primary.)
The connection residents feel to the Romney name "is probably exaggerated," said former Democratic Gov. James Blanchard. Nonetheless, Blanchard has warned Democrats against complacency: "I think Michigan is in play, although all the pundits are saying it's not."
While the Romney campaign and Republican activists maintain that the race is tight, and winnable, the usual signs — especially television advertising — give the sentiment a slightly hollow ring.
Unlike in neighboring Ohio, a true swing state where TV viewers have been bombarded by ads, it is possible to watch television here and not even realize a presidential campaign is going on.
Although some of the outside groups supporting Romney, notably Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS, have spent about $11 million on ads since March, the Romney campaign has not bought any, said Rich Robinson of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, a nonprofit, nonpartisan coalition. Nor has the Obama campaign, or any outside group supporting him, spent a dime on ads here.
"Basically, the Romney groups threw the kitchen sink at Obama for six months and it didn't move the needle," Robinson said.