Banking on the White House

Mitt Romney would be the only president born and bred in Michigan. He’s rich, with donors lining up to give him even more money. And he’s spending all of his energy on winning.


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“I care very deeply about the manufacturing base of this country, and I believe the automotive industry is an important contributor to our vitality nationally. … So I want to see the domestic auto-mobile manufacturers succeed.”
— mitt romney

George, who died in 1995, was blustery, impatient, a man of action in a hurry. He would play golf by himself, rushing around and playing several different balls, usually badly. A charming man with a twinkle in his eye, he could also give in to quick flashes of temper. By comparison, Mitt comes across in an interview as, well, almost the bionic man.

Taller, and even more handsome than his father, Mitt always appears band-box crisp, even when he departs from his usual tailored suit for a rare appearance in a polo shirt and slacks.

One gets the impression he would look neatly pressed halfway through a rugby match. His answers to nearly every question seem carefully calculated and calibrated. Would he lead a crusade to save the automotive industry, the economic mainstay of his ancestral home, the business to which his auto-executive father devoted the best years of his life?

“I care very deeply about the manufacturing base of this country, and I believe the automotive industry is an important contributor to our vitality nationally,” he says, sitting at a small table in an office of the Demmer Corp., on the outskirts of Lansing on a Saturday afternoon in late spring.

“… So I want to see the domestic automobile manufacturers succeed.” He goes on to detail his support for basic science, energy independence, more fuel efficiency, though not necessarily mandatory ones. He backs many safe things.

Outside, hundreds of party faithful are excitedly waiting to see the man to whom they have donated money and to rub elbows with for a few moments. “STRONG. NEW. LEADERSHIP,” their signs say. “Oooo, he looks even better than his father!” coos an elderly woman who’s dressed for the occasion in a red, white, and blue boater.

Make no mistake, he’s the Michigan Republican Party’s man. Yes, there were a dwindling few John McCain supporters who swept Michigan’s primary in 2000; some for Rudy Giuliani, and some hoping for Fred Thompson.

But the Mitten State belongs to Mitt. He didn’t just raise more money in Michigan in the first quarter than anyone else, he raised more money than all the other candidates — both Democrats and Republicans combined. Nationally, he was leading all Republicans in the all-important “money primary.”

His strategy for winning the nomination is easy to discern. Rudy Giuliani led in the early polls but that, he believes, is based almost entirely on his courageous performance on Sept. 11, 2001. Republican primaries are, however, dominated overwhelmingly by social conservatives.

The Romney forces — though not the man himself — are already sending the message that theirs is the only candidate who has been married just once. Giuliani — who carries the domestic baggage of three marriages, rumored affairs, and estrangement from his children — is basically pro-choice. “That’s more torpedoes than one hull can handle,“ as one Romney supporter put it. When that is generally known, they believe the New York City mayor will fade into the background. McCain seems, by his passionate embrace of the war, to have lost his former support of mavericks without winning over the right wing.

As for the rest, few know their names (Tom Tancredo? Ron Paul?). And it’s hard to see where the millions could come from to make them competitive.

“I would hate to be getting in at this late stage,” Mitt says, in a moment of candor. That’s because the nominations of both parties are almost certain to be decided by what amounts to a “national primary” involving perhaps half the states, from New York to California, and possibly including Michigan, on Feb. 5.

Nationwide TV advertising will be needed. That takes money. Big money. The Romney campaign has been raising it. When needed, Mitt has been pouring his own millions in as well. The machine runs like clockwork. Yet he is not a man without emotion. He adored his mother, and was visibly moved when he saw Oakland County’s Betty Bright show up with an old Lenore button, from a disastrous run she made in 1970 for the U.S. Senate.

But his real hero was, and is, his father.

George Romney’s own run for president took place exactly 40 years ago. There’s an odd symbolism to the number 40 between father and son. George was just a few months shy of that age when his youngest son was born.

Mitt was elected governor of Massachusetts exactly 40 years after his dad did the same in Michigan. That first Romney campaign is notable for 15-year-old Mitt’s first and, some say last, political gaffe.

He told a reporter that it “sure felt funny to be in the United States on the Fourth of July.”  (The family still often summers at the cottage the elder Romneys bought in Ontario, north of Sarnia.)

George’s campaign survived that easily. He defeated a Democratic incumbent, then won two more terms as governor by landslides. Reportedly, he was the one candidate John F. Kennedy feared facing in 1964. He saw 1968 as his year. Forty years ago this fall, the polls had George as the frontrunner for the Republican nomination. The first real test, the New Hampshire primary, was to be on Mitt’s 21st birthday.

But the youngest son took no part in the campaign. He was off doing his missionary service.

George’s campaign blew up after he told Detroit TV interviewer Lou Gordon, “I just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get when you go over to Vietnam. Not just by the generals, but by the diplomatic corps.” Everyone acknowledges today that what he said was true. What was wrong was his unfortunate choice of a word. “I would have thought a light rinse would have done it,” U.S. Sen. Eugene McCarthy sneered.

Editorial cartoonists had a field day. Later, Theodore H. White, in his The Making of the President 1968, revealed that the national press corps had decided that Romney was too hopelessly square for national office.

So, they were willing participants in bringing him down. Nelson Rockefeller, Romney’s biggest public backer, turned out to be interested in running himself. So on Feb. 28, the campaign ended. First, however, he wrote a six-page, single-spaced letter to his youngest son, the missionary in France. “I aspired, and though I achieved not, I am satisfied,” he wrote.

Today, Mitt says,  “I am a small shadow of the real deal.”

Forty years after George was first elected governor of Michigan, Mitt followed that same path, winning the statehouse in heavily Democratic Massachusetts. It was his second try for office.

Eight years before, he had run a race nobody thought he could win, taking on Democratic U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. “I asked [my brother] why he was doing this,” Scott says. “He said he had some ideas and he felt compelled to put them forward.”

For a while, amazingly, Romney led in the polls. The entire clan, headed by his then 87-year-old father, took off for Massachusetts, campaigning like mad.
Then Kennedy asked the voters’ forgiveness for his past indiscretions. There was a single televised debate, in which Teddy blew Mitt out of the water.  Mitt knew what was coming. But George called his older son, Scott, who was in an important client meeting.

“Scott! We all have to go to Massachusetts. We can still win this thing! We need to fan out all over the state like the Kennedys. We can still win this thing!” “Dad,” Scott said gently, “It’s Mitt’s race. Don’t you think 10 years from now he’ll want to say he did it his way?” There was a pause.

“Oh, you are right!” George Romney replied. The final score was Kennedy, 1,266,011, Romney, 894,005. It was Kennedy’s closest race since he had come into the Senate in 1962 — but not really very close.

“He was devastated. Nobody saw that, but he was. He told me it took him six months to get over it,” Scott remembers. Mitt hated losing.

And he did not intend to lose again. Eight months later, in Bloomfield Hills, Lenore awoke. Her 88-year-old husband always got up early, ran on the treadmill, then left her a rose and a note by her bedside. There was no rose that morning, and no note, and she knew. Mitt came home for the funeral.

“The common thread of his life was helping others,” Mitt said of his personal hero.

 

 

 

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