Romney's uneasy heartland

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks during a rally at the Park Place Hotel on February 26 Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Mitt Romney's family ties should help him in Michigan

Mitt Romney tells the audience at Kettering University in Flint that he needs their vote on Tuesday because he is the one who can beat Barack Obama in November. There is a roar of approval at the idea that Obama will be a one-term president, but Romney's triumph is far from certain even in Michigan, let alone in a general election.

After a big surge for his rival Rick Santorum, the polls are picking up again for the former frontrunner who has constantly stumbled and occasionally fallen behind.

At this rally the audience surrounds Romney on all sides. He's dressed in pressed blue jeans and a crisp white shirt, but still gives the impression of a man wearing a suit. Holding a microphone in one hand and gesturing with the other, he gently rotates to face all of his audience.

It is perhaps unfair, perhaps just a question of body language, but there is something unconvincing, inauthentic about Romney. He seems like an actor who hasn't quite got under the skin of his character, who isn't yet comfortable in the role.

Not so Santorum, the Christian crusader in the sweater vest, or tank top, whose whole persona is built on a passion and a willingness to guilelessly gallop into territory that some consider best avoided.

Michigan should be home territory to Romney. He was brought up here, and older voters immediately raise his father, a much loved governor and head of American Motors, as a reason for voting for the son. A loss here would be devastating.

As Republican strategist Taylor Griffin says: "In terms of delegate math, it is survivable to not win in Michigan. But in terms of the perception of Romney he would be in dangerous territory.

"He has two selling points. One that he is more electable, he just might beat Obama; two the idea that (his candidature) is inevitable, which helps fundraising. Those perceptions are going to be strongly determined by the outcome of Michigan. He won this state in a really tough primary against John McCain in 2008. If he cannot win it this time it will really open up the Republican field."

No slam-dunk

Romney, like all the other candidates, opposed Obama's bailout of the motor industry. In a state that has one-in-eight of all the car plants in the US, that doesn't go down well. The Detroit Free Press has backed him, noting: "This endorsement should be a slam-dunk for Mitt Romney."

Image copyright (C) British Broadcasting Corporation
Image caption Stephen Henderson describes his backing of Romney as tepid

But the endorsement wasn't a slam-dunk, and instead is hedged with qualifications. The man who wrote it, Stephen Henderson, says "tepid" is probably the right word.

"We have real misgivings about the way he has behaved during the campaign," says Henderson.

"We have been big fans of him in the past, when he was governor of Massachusetts, when he helped save the Winter Olympics . He was deeply opposed to the auto bailouts, which were crucial to turning round the economy here in Michigan. It goes down horribly here, no matter who you talk to here, everybody is one or two people removed from the auto industry.

"It is the state economy and we all understand that the approach he is talking about [allowing bankruptcy] wouldn't have worked. We would have been in much, much worse straights if he had had his way."

But it is not just about the motor industry.

"He has taken a turn to the hard right in the last 12 months, which really concerns us," says Henderson.

"Mitt Romney has made a record of collaborative, co-operative leadership. He works with Democrats, he works with independents, he works with Republicans with whom he disagrees to get things done. He was always a problem solver. A neutral problem solver. He has adopted a much more strident tone in the campaign that suggests he is abandoning that way of doing things to appeal to the Republican base.

"So our concern is which Mitt Romney are you dealing with, which Mitt Romney are you going to get if he is President ?"

This is important for a couple of reasons. If independents, or floating voters, feel the same way, he might have a harder time convincing them in a general election. He can of course soften his tone if the nomination is tucked under his belt. But that plays into perhaps the most negative perception of Romney and one that team Obama has carefully nurtured: that he is a flip-flopper, with no solid core.

It will be an intriguing dilemma for candidate Romney. But first he has to win Michigan, and that is by no means in the bag.

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