Michigan Face Off

Romney’s Last Rally

Southfield, Michigan –This was Mitt Romney‘s crowd, daring increasing snow and sleet to fill the Shenandoah Country Club.  “Well, the fire marshall’s gone now, so I can tell you that we had 725 people here,”  Diane Reis-Harnisch, executive director of the Oakland County Republican Party, told me after their primary eve dinner, “and that’s about 100 more than regulations permit.”

Although the event tonight was a party dinner to hail past GOP chairmen in one of the largest and most reliable of counties Michigan Republicans count on, it was also a rally to cheer on a native son — Mitt Romney, now locked in a tight race with John McCain in the presidential primary January 15.  With a Mitchell Interactive poll completed today showing Romney leading McCain by a margin of 35% to 29% (and Mike Huckabee a distant third at 12%), family and longtime friends of the Oakland County boy who went on to be Winter Olympics czar and governor of Massachusetts wanted his closing pre-primary event to be his best.

“They all know about my father here and while that won’t guarantee votes for Mitt, it will get voters to at least consider him,” attorney Scott Romney, the candidate’s older brother told me, before the dinner.  What seemed to be a “Who’s Who” of Oakland County GOP heavyweights — Sheriff Mike Bouchard, Rep. Joe Knollenberg, and County Executive Brooks Patterson (who revealed in a taped message that he already voted for Romney “so you have one vote, Mitt”) — all weighed in strongly for him.

Appearing more relaxed than he has in recent appearances, Mitt Romney warmed the crowd up with stories of how his sons gave him a 1962 Rambler (the car his own father made famous as head of American Motors) and of the Olympians who touched him with their feats against the odds.  Romney called for a larger military, applying private sector initiatives to Washington, an end to illegal immigration, and a beefed-up military.  And he invoked the inspiration of Ronald Reagan.

In short, it was nothing new — just enough to fire up the voters he needs most to emerge triumphant in the primary.

Although the group at the Shenandoah Club was indeed Romney’s group, there were backers of other candidates. Oakland County Clerk and 2006 lieutenant governor candidate Ruth Johnson, for example, told me “I’m county chairman for John McCain. 
With national security the top issue, he’s the person we need now.”  Rev. Keith Butler, recently-elected Republican National Committeeman, explained that he had switched from McCain to Huckabee because “the debate in the Senate over immigration and the bill McCain supported created such a dust-up I couldn’t back him anymore.”  Despite criticism from some conservatives over Huckabee’s stance, Butler assured me “I’ve talked to him and he would take a strong stand on illegal immigration as President.”

This was Mitt Romney’s night, however, and for the most part, these were his people.  Whether they will be enough for him to go on after Michigan we will know soon.

Romney Should Win Photo Finish, But. . .

Southfield, Michigan — Final polls give a tight edge to Mitt Romney in the Michigan primary January 15th and even supporters of Sen. John McCain privately conceded to me that the former Massachusetts governor superior organization and funding gives him an advantage in the balloting.
But given the closeness of their contest and the fact that this is primary in which voters choose to participate in either the Republlican or Democratic balloting, no one will bet the farm that a Romney win–and with it, the survival of his campaign to fight another day–is fait accompli.  According to the latest Rasmussen Poll on January 14th, Romney edges McCain among likely voters 26% to 25%, with Mike Huckabee a distant-but-strong third with 17%.  (Rasumussen also showed Fred Thompson at 9%, Ron Paul 8%, and Rudy Giuliani 6%).
However, in a state in which there is no registration by party and voters with a lifelong history of voting for Democrats are free to participate in the GOP sweepstakes, those figures could change dramatically over night.  Last year, Barack Obama and John Edwards pulled out of the Michigan Democratic primary to show solidarity with the state party, which was being penalized in terms of delegates for defying the Democratic National Committee and holding a primary before New Hampshire (which eventually moved its primary to January 8th). So Hillary Clinton is left virtually unopposed (Mike Gravel and Dennis Kucinich remain on the ballot) and Water Wonderland Democrats are free to come over and make mischief in the Republican “main event” here.
So-called cross-over voting has packed a wallop before.  In the first-ever Michigan primary in 1972, Republicans led by then-state legislator Jack Welborn came over in droves to give George Wallace a landslide win.  In 1996, Pat Buchanan scored his best percentage of the primary vote nationwide in Michigan with support from blue collar Democrats, who had no need to vote in a primary in which incumbent President Bill Clinton was unopposed.  (In blue-collar, heavily Democratic Bay County, for example, Buchanan drew a whopping 43% of the vote).  In 2000, John McCain’s flailing campaign got a new lease on life with his dramatic primary victory in Michigan over George W. Bush; where polls showed Bush would have won a closed primary with Republicans only participating, a cross-over vote by Democrats designed in large part to embarass Bushman and then-Gov. John M. Engler put McCain over the top.
Could McCain be the beneficiary of a similar cross-over in ’08?  Maybe.  But as pundits and pols noted, Engler is gone and Democrat Jennifer Granholm is governor.  There is no motivating Republican to punish.  In addition, Huckabee’s blue collar appeal and following among cultural conservatives is likely to benefit from the cross-over vote.  In a telephone news conference last week, Huckabee pointed out that he had been endorsed by the Machinists and Painters unions here; today, the former Arkansas governor toured a Demmer Corporation factory in Lansing, where I’m told he was a big hit with the workers.
Another factor that may limit Democratic participation is that there is a movement–backed quietly by the Edwards and Obama camps — to encourage a vote for “uncommitted”–also on the Democratic ballot — against Hillary Clinton.  As State GOP Chairman Saul Anuzis, who is neutral in the race, told me: “The question will be whether the urge to vote against Hillary Clinton among Democrats in the other candidate’s camps outweighs their desire to come over for whatever reason and vote for a Republican.”
In terms of organization, endorsments, and money, Romney has clear advantages over his rivals.  When his campaign went through its meltdown last year, McCain was forced to cut back on his Michigan budget and lay off all but one paid staffer here — John Yob, son of McCain State Co-Chairman Chuck Yob.  Prior to his Iowa win, Huckabee had no paid staffer and no headquarters here.  His victory has been fueled by post-Iowa volunteers led by veteran cultural conservative organizer Gary Glenn.  
All told, signs now point to a narrow win (and political survival) by Mitt Romney.  But please don’t bet the farm on that — maybe a few acres.  

How Much Will Romney Name Help Mitt in Michigan?
Lansing, Michigan— “ROMNEY GREAT IN ’68” blared the message on the poster brandished at a rally for Mitt Romney in Southfield, Michigan Sunday.  This is 2008 and not 1968 and the Romney in the poster is not Mitt but his father George — governor of Michigan in the 1960’s and briefly a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 1968.
Mitt Romney cheerfully autographed the collector’s item poster and the photo of it made the Washington Post, the New York Times, and other national outlets.
In many ways, the George Romney poster and Mitt signing it are symbolic of the campaign the former Massachusetts governor is running in the Michigan presidential primary January 15th; at every stop, in every speech, Mitt Romney — native Michiganian who left fhere at 18 for college and an eventual business career in Boston — invokes the name of his father, governor of Michigan from 1962-69 and onetime president of American Motors (“a car guy” as Mitt recalled the elder Romney to his Southfield audience.”).
Romney’s unfailing reminders to Michigan voters that he is George Romney’s son invites the obvious questions:  does it help Mitt Romney in his up-in-the-air primary duel with John McCain and Mike Huckabee?  Does the Romney name bring with it any political wallop or latent organization?
Many old political hands I spoke to say no, or not that much.
“It carries a little weight and gives Mitt a base,”  Bill Ballenger, editor of Inside Michigan Politics, told me, noting that Mitt’s older brother, attorney Scott Romney, won election to the Michigan State University Board of Trustees in 2000.
But Ballenger quickly added, “George Romney last won election when he was re-elected governor in 1966 and that was a long time ago.  Probably 5% — maximum — of the voters who were around then are still around and voting.  The others may have heard of George Romney, but don;’t really remember him.”
So while Mitt Romney may get some help from the family name, Ballenger concluded, “I don’t think it helps him that much.”
Richard McLellan, Lansing “superlawyer” and confidant of former Republican Gov (1990-2002) John M. Engler, was blunter than Ballenger.  In his words, “George Romney is very old history to most Michiganians.  His memory won’t help Mitt.”  McLellan recalled to me how he asked a young Michigan lobbyist who followed politics if she knew who “Soapy” Williams was twenty years after he completed his twelve years (1948-60) as Democratic governor of Michigan.  “She replied no and asked about ‘Soapy’–‘was she a dancer?'” said McLellan.
In terms of an existing George Romney organization, there is none.  The late governor’s political inner circle — top aide Dick Van Dusen, press secretary Richard Milliman — are all long retired.  Elly Peterson, GOP state chairman under the elder Romney, is nearing 100 years old and retired in Hawaii.  William Milliken, Romney’s lieutenant governor and successor in the governorship, has endorsed McCain — four years after he was a “Republican for Kerry.”
As for the clout of the Romney name at the ballot box, it has not fared that well.  Mitt’s mother Lenore got about a third of the vote as the Republican nominee for U.S. Senator in 1970.  Scott’s former wife Ronna Romney, now campaigning hard for Mitt, lost two races for the U.S. Senate in 1994 and ’96.  While Scott Romney did win election to the Board of Trustees, he was first appointed to a vacancy on the Board by Gov. Engler.
There are second opinions.  Driving to Oakland County for a GOP dinner at which Mitt Romney would speak, State Party Chairman Saul Anuzis told me: “I met George Romney when I was a cub scout.  I’d say voters over 55 know who he is and voters over 65 really remember him warmly.”  Anuzis, who is 48 (and decidedly neutral in the Tuesday primary), reminded me that senior citizens are the most consistent voters in the Water Wonderland.