WARREN, Mich. - John McCain and Mitt Romney came to Michigan, where job losses in manufacturing have been most devastating, with dramatically different messages - McCain telling the laid-off that their assembly-line jobs have been lost for good and Romney promising that with the right policies in Washington the jobs can return.
In the days before tomorrow's Republican primary, both candidates have presented themselves as boosters of free markets, but their attitudes toward the disruptions markets can wreak have varied widely.
McCain has told voters that the outflow of jobs and workers is the irrevocable consequence of new economic opportunities, and Romney has attempted to portray that attitude as a defeatist neglect of America's can-do spirit.
"I've got to give you some straight talk: Some of the jobs that have left the state of Michigan are not coming back," McCain said Wednesday in Grand Rapids. "They are not. And I am sorry to tell you that."
At a debate the next night in South Carolina, Romney latched onto the remark in his first answer of the evening as he attempted to contrast himself with McCain.
"He said, you know, some jobs have left Michigan that are never coming back. I disagree," Romney said.
On Friday, in his first stop on a five-day tour of the state, the former governor of Massachusetts pointedly acknowledged that McCain described his views as "straight talk."
"I'm not willing to accept defeat like that," Romney said.
Most economists agree that the decline of American manufacturing is a natural consequence of participation in the modern global economy. But with McCain and Romney having broad agreement across related policy questions - both preach free trade, lower taxes, and looser regulation - the differences between the two have come down to posture, with each attempting to grasp the mantle of optimism in the face of economic gloom.
"Romney's talking about trying to support industry and contain the change while McCain is talking about how to ride the change," said Michael Veseth, a professor of international political economy at the University of Puget Sound.
The third contender in Michigan, former governor Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, spoke Friday at the Detroit Economic Club, but offered the state little more than the notion of charity.
"There was a time when Michigan helped save America and now it may be time for America to help save Michigan," said Huckabee, who in an ad airing locally describes himself as a would-be president who reminds Americans "of the guy they work with, not the guy who laid them off."
Romney grew up in Michigan, where his father, George, served as governor. George Romney also was president of American Motors Corp., where he was one of the first automakers to champion compact cars. The son made his career as a consultant and venture capitalist by finding new efficiencies for corporate clients. He announced his candidacy nearly a year ago at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn by celebrating "innovation and transformation."
As the campaign moved to Michigan, Romney has looked back, offering himself as a champion for a "great state which when I was growing up was the envy of the nation and the powerhouse economically of the world."
Since then, transformations in the auto industry - from automation on the assembly line to mass layoffs as manufacturers turn to less expensive labor abroad - have created a long-term malaise with deep psychological consequences.
"We lack hope. It's hard to tell someone who has been out of a job that they are not going to produce again," Mindy Fernandes, a grass-roots organizer for the American Association of Retired Persons, said while waiting for McCain to speak. "He's correct in saying line jobs aren't coming back, but there are high-tech jobs that are manufacturing-based."
McCain, however, is largely bereft of economic nostalgia, saying in Livonia that it "wasn't government's job to protect buggy factories and haberdashers when cars replaced carriages and men stopped wearing hats. But it is government's job to help workers get the education and training they need for the new jobs that will be created by new businesses in this new century."
For those displaced by job loss, McCain has proposed new worker-retraining and short-term unemployment programs and suggested subsidies that would offset a disparity in salary for those moving to lower-paying work.
"Romney is trying to be someone who can provide people with security. But more of what McCain is saying is the honest response," said Veseth.
Ultimately, the two have ended up in a debate over the role of sentimentalism in economic affairs, as they argue over the merits of old jobs versus new ones. The theme also has resonated in South Carolina, where Republicans will vote Saturday.
"I don't know anyone in Greenville-Spartanburg that believes the old jobs are coming back," McCain said in an interview, referring to the South Carolina cities where textile mills have been shuttered but foreign investment has created high-skilled factories in their place. "But we got the BMW plant, we got the Michelin plant, we got a set of businesses and industry that's coming to South Carolina."
In Michigan, Romney's campaign has portrayed McCain's attitude as a gesture of abandonment toward the state, which Romney has identified as a "canary in the mine shaft" of the national economy. "It tells you he doesn't understand this internationally competitive world we live in today," Ron Kaufman, a Romney adviser, said of McCain. "You can not give away any job for any reason."
On Friday, Romney reiterated his plans to "fight for every good job for Michigan and America" in a brief speech at a center devoted to the development of alternative-fuel technology at Macomb Community College in Warren, Mich. Romney proposed further "investment in science and research" and attacked new automotive fuel-efficiency standards he said "helped the foreign manufacturers and hurt the domestics."
One Romney supporter there shrugged his shoulders as he assessed the candidates' disagreement over whether jobs have been lost for good. "That's probably the truth, but no one's doing anything to change it," said Gerry Geisler, a 64-year old project manager. "Cars aren't going away."