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Michigan Primary A Test Of Romney's Family Legacy

Michigan and Arizona hold presidential primaries Tuesday, and in Michigan, where Mitt Romney was born, the race has been as hard-fought as anywhere in the country.

For Romney, the campaign there has been personal. He often evokes the Michigan of his youth, when his father, George, ran American Motors and went on to become a very popular three-term governor.

But does that family legacy mean anything today?

If you were to go to a Romney event in Detroit or Kalamazoo or Traverse City, you'd be almost guaranteed to hear some Romney family history.

"When Dad ran for governor in 1962, I went in a little Ford van and I was not 16 yet, so there was another guy with me that drove," Romney said at a recent event. "We went from county fair to county fair; I think we visited that year all 83 Michigan counties."

In modern Michigan politics, George Romney looms large. He was an innovative auto executive who helped lead a movement to rewrite the state constitution and modernize state government. Eventually, he became governor.

"If we are to succeed in our complex objectives, we will need such a bipartisan consensus and dedication — one born in modern terms, on the basis of modern current human and social needs," George Romney said in his second inaugural address.

George's Legacy

It is not unusual to feel the presence of George Romney at Mitt Romney's events. In Shelby Township, a 95-year-old man stands and tells the candidate a story about his dad. Another, Tim Booth, holds up a vintage campaign poster that reads: "Romney — Great for '68."

"I was born and raised in Michigan [but] I don't have a lot of recollection of George Romney, to be honest with you," Booth says. "In 1968 I was 7, so it's just the history of the state."

Booth is a fan of the 2012 Romney as well. He says Mitt Romney is not just a hometown hero but can be one for all Americans.

But the younger you are, the less the name means. At a Rick Santorum speech at the Detroit Economic Club, David Smith, a 41-year-old financial planner, says he just doesn't have the "warm fuzzies" for Romney.

Polls show that is the more typical sentiment; after all, George Romney left office in 1969 and died in 1995. Bill Ballenger, who publishes the newsletter Inside Michigan Politics, cites a recent survey where just 26 percent knew that Mitt Romney is a Michigander.

"Otherwise they didn't even know he had a connection with Michigan," Ballenger says. "But guess what: 26 percent is a lot more than zero percent for Santorum and Gingrich and Paul; they have no connection to Michigan at all."

Dad's Politics Today

Last week in Lansing, three former aides to Gov. George Romney got together to talk about their old boss. Keith Molin sees one obvious difference between the father and son.

"When George Romney came along, the Michigan Republican Party had established a reputation for being a far right, very conservative, kind of an obstruction force in government," Molin says, "and George Romney came along and he moved that party from the far right to the middle of the road — a much more moderate organization [and] a much more moderate political arm."

While Mitt Romney is working hard not to be called a moderate, in his day, George Romney refused to endorse 1964 GOP nominee Sen. Barry Goldwater. Some go so far as to say that if he were active in politics today, the elder Romney would be a Democrat.

"Frankly, if you were to bring George Romney forward to this day right now, and try to categorize him as liberal or moderate or conservative, I don't think you could do it," says former aide Bill Whitbeck, now a Michigan Court of Appeals judge.

On social issues, Whitbeck says he thinks Romney would be in line with social conservatives today. But on fiscal matters, he predicts Romney would not be one of those Republicans looking to starve the government.

"I don't think he would be what I would call a small-government guy; he would be an effective-government guy," he says.

Fred Grasman, who once lived with the Romney family, says the differences in politics and style between the Romneys are very real. Where Mitt seems cautious and reserved, George was bold and gregarious. But, Grasman says, there is a very strong connecting thread.

"They had their family to depend on, and I see that now in both senior and junior — the cohesiveness of the family and how they stick together," Grasman says.

Both men share that, and a legacy. Michigan voters will tell Mitt Romney Tuesday how much that matters.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Don Gonyea
You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.