GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. - With their rivals focused on other states and the race for the Republican nomination still unsettled, John McCain and Mitt Romney battled each other in Michigan yesterday, turning their attention to the state's suffering economy and its crucial presidential primary on Tuesday.
Both men are chasing history, with McCain trying to reprise his victory in the 2000 Michigan primary and Romney his father's success as a three-term governor. Several hundred cheering supporters gave Romney a big welcome in an upscale shopping village in Grand Rapids yesterday afternoon, with one man yelling: "Gold, Mitt! Gold!"
"I've watched with concern as I've watched Michigan go through a one-state recession," the former Massachusetts governor said, standing on a chair and yelling without a microphone. "It's just not right, and we need to have somebody who cares very deeply about this state - and I do."
McCain also zeroed in on the economy. Noting that Michigan's unemployment rate is nearly 3 percentage points above the national average, the Arizona senator floated a plan to use community colleges to retrain workers.
"I'm aware of the economic difficulties here in the state of Michigan," McCain said at a rally in Grand Rapids, just a few hours before Romney arrived. "I am aware that you have high unemployment. I'm aware that the state of Michigan has lost jobs and that there are tough times, tough times here in the Heartland of America."
For McCain, Michigan presents an opportunity to keep alive the momentum from his campaign-saving victory in New Hampshire on Tuesday.
For Romney, the state is close to a must-win after he planned for months - and outspent his rivals - to win Iowa and New Hampshire, but came in second to Mike Huckabee in Iowa and to McCain in New Hampshire. In a sign of how much his campaign is banking on a win, Romney has decided to pull his advertising from South Carolina and Florida, but continue running ads in Michigan, as he has for weeks.
Huckabee, who finished third in New Hampshire, is in the top tier with McCain and Romney in recent polls in Michigan, where he hopes to establish himself as a national candidate. He launched a new TV ad in the state yesterday, focusing on jobs. In the ad, Huckabee says that he knows what it is like to struggle financially while growing up, and then boasts of his record as governor in Arkansas in cutting taxes and "achieving record job growth."
The rest of the GOP field is ignoring Michigan; the candidates are cherry-picking states where they believe they can win. Former senator Fred Thompson of Tennessee rolled yesterday across South Carolina on a bus tour, hoping his Southern roots and conservative platform will give him a make-or-break win in the Jan. 19 primary. Rudy Giuliani stumped yesterday in Florida, where he is staking his candidacy on its Jan. 29 primary.
Giuliani unveiled a tax-cut plan that the conservative Club for Growth - which has run ads against Huckabee - praised as "a bold and innovative proposal that will reward hard work, encourage investment, and promote economic growth for Americans across the economic spectrum." The plan would extend President Bush's tax cuts, lower corporate tax rates, and eliminate the federal estate tax, among other measures.
All the Republican candidates, except Duncan Hunter, will be in South Carolina tonight for another debate, the third in six days.
Before leaving for Michigan, Romney tried to reassure key fund-raisers at a Boston phone-a-thon that he is in the race for the long run, despite his disappointing finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire. Chief campaign strategist Alex Gage sought to reinforce the point with a memo titled "The Path to Victory," in which he argued that Romney has received the most votes of any Republican, that the race is "wide open," and that Romney is the best candidate to beat the Democratic nominee.
The Romney campaign said late yesterday that 500 volunteers from across the country had raised about $5 million in the phone-a-thon, less than the $6.5 million generated by a similar event in January 2007. Only $1.5 million of the total can be used for the primary race, however, the campaign said.
Romney is counting on winning in Michigan to keep his campaign alive.
He emphasized yesterday that he was born in Detroit, the son of an auto executive who served as governor from 1963 to 1969, and that he worked on his father's campaigns and his mother's unsuccessful campaign for US Senate in 1970. He recalled that he worked as a security guard at Chrysler after high school and returned after graduate school to work in Chrysler's marketing division.
"I always thought someday I'd be in the car business," Romney told the crowd in Grand Rapids yesterday. "Well, now I think I could do more to help the car business and to help Michigan by becoming president than by going to a job in the car industry."
Romney attributed Michigan's economic woes, in part, on the state's Democratic governor, Jennifer Granholm, saying taxes are going up in the state and unemployment is rising. He pledged to invest more heavily in science and help Michigan's public research universities.
"If I'm president, that one-state recession is over," Romney said to applause at an "Ask Mitt Anything" event held at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids. The crowd applauded when Romney recalled his father's service as governor. One man in the audience told Romney, "Welcome home."
McCain also campaigned on his political history in Michigan.
"This state can again play a key role," McCain said at his rally. "We won it in 2000 - and we will win it again in 2008."
Romney talked about reviving the auto industry, but McCain said some Michigan industries cannot be resurrected.
"I've got to give you some straight talk: Some of the jobs that have left the state of Michigan are not coming back," he said. "They are not. And I am sorry to tell you that."
He proposed a new system to educate and retrain workers.
"We cannot abandon them in the name of progress, in the name of information technology revolution," he said. "We are a Judeo-Christian-valued nation and we cannot leave these great Americans behind."
Material from the Associated Press was also used in this report. Michael Levenson can be reached at email@example.com.