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'Car guy' Romney takes pitch to near empty stadium

25 february 2012, 14:39
White House hopeful Mitt Romney on Friday styled himself as a Michigan-bred "car guy" whose wife drives "a couple of Cadillacs" as he tried to woo Motor City voters ahead of a clutch primary, AFP reports.

Giving what was billed as a major economic policy speech just days before Michigan Republicans choose their presidential nominee, Romney set out his plan to lower taxes and said he was the only candidate capable of beating Barack Obama.

But the speech may be remembered more for its setting and Romney's off-hand remarks rather than its substance.

Before 1,200 guests of the Detroit Economic Club, Romney took to the podium on the 30 yard line of Ford Field stadium -- home of the NFL's Detroit Lions -- surrounded by 65,000 empty seats.

It was a jarring contrast to Romney's previous carefully packed events and to the rock star welcomes that Obama received during his candidacy four years ago.

Undeterred, Romney played up his Michigan roots and love of the state as he tried to break the statistical dead heat with rival Rick Santorum, a religious conservative and former senator.

"You know, the trees are the right height. The streets are just right. I like the fact that most of the cars I see are Detroit-made automobiles," he said to polite applause.

But Romney may have stumbled when listing what seemed like a garage-full of cars, another allusion to his $250 million fortune that has not sat well with the glum economic mood of the country.

"I drive a Mustang and a Chevy pick-up truck. Ann drives a couple of Cadillacs, actually. And I used to have a Dodge truck."

Romney has so far failed to dominate in a state where he was born, where his father was once governor and which he won handily in his failed 2008 bid for the Republican nomination.

The Michigan primary, on February 28, could be a watershed moment in a Republican race that has seen Romney challenged by a seemingly endless series of rivals from the conservative wing of the party.

Romney on Friday doubled down on an election pitch that has focused heavily on his business acumen, the former venture capitalist and ex-Massachusetts governor said cutting taxes is the quickest and only way to restore jobs.

Romney has called for a 20 percent reduction in income tax for all Americans, and lowering the corporate tax ten points to 25 percent.

"For 36 months the unemployment rate has been over eight percent," Romney said, lambasting Obama's economic record. "I want to restore America's promise."

The campaign in Michigan has been dominated by economic concerns.

Unemployment is stuck at 9.3 percent in the "rust belt" state, well above the national average of 8.3 percent.

But more than joblessness, the government bailouts of General Motors and Chrysler have loomed large.

Throughout the campaign Romney has scrambled to defend a 2008 article in which he argued it was necessary to "let Detroit go bankrupt."

"If General Motors, Ford and Chrysler get the bailout that their chief executives asked for yesterday, you can kiss the American automotive industry goodbye," he wrote in the pages of the New York Times in November of that year.

Nearly three years after a $50 billion-plus bailout, General Motors is posting record $7.6 billion annual profits and has wrestled the title of world's largest automaker back from Toyota.

Casting himself as "a car guy" Romney on Friday said that unions, government regulation and mismanagement were at fault for the American auto industry's pre-bailout decline and warned they could yet imperil the sector.

"For Michigan to be strong and vital, the auto industry has to be growing and thriving. I hope we learn lessons from the experiences of the past," he said.

"In my view, the industry got in trouble because the UAW (United Auto Workers) asked for too much, management gave too much and made other mistakes, and the government... standards hurt domestic automakers and provided a benefit to some of the foreign auto makers.

"We should get the government out of General Motors so that the future of that company is determined by the demands of the marketplace, not by the preferences of bureaucrats in Washington."

Union workers, largely supportive of President Obama, picketed the stadium during Romney's appearance, lining up 26 placard-holding cars with the message "Romney: Let Detroit Go Bankrupt."

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