DETROIT -- As Michigan Republicans cast ballots in the state’s presidential primary on Tuesday, President Obama will headline a United Auto Workers conference in Washington to celebrate “the rescue of Detroit.” Make that his rescue of Detroit.
“We didn't make the decisions on which day the UAW would hold their conference," White House principal deputy press secretary Josh Earnest said, denying the timing was political.
Still, Obama’s speech will be a fitting cap to a week of Democratic efforts to damage Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney, two GOP presidential contenders who opposed the auto bailout and are battling it out to win Michigan. The Democrats are particularly focused on Romney, a Michigan native who four years ago wrote a New York Times op-ed headlined “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.”
Those words – “Romney: Let Detroit Go Bankrupt” – were spelled out on 26 American-made vehicles on the roof of a parking garage overlooking the front gate of Ford Field on Friday several hours before Romney was to speak there. In a move organized by the UAW, 250 union members and allies took to the streets to protest Romney’s use of a field named for a giant of the industry he opposed bailing out.
“People started to get involved once the Detroit Economic Club decided to move Romney’s speech here to Ford Field,” said Ellen Canale, a spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee, who flew out to help with the protests. “It just didn’t seem to sit right with Democrats.”
Mark Brewer, chair of the Michigan Democratic Party, told National Journal/CBS News that the problem for Republicans is much bigger than one speech at Ford Field. “For us here in Michigan, this is personal,” he said. “There’s not a single family here that doesn’t have a family member working in the auto industry. This is our life and blood.”
Asked why Democrats aren’t railing as hard against Santorum, who’s leading Romney in several Michigan polls, Brewer said part of the reason is that Romney “has made such a big deal out of opposing the auto rescue” and part is his background as the son of an auto-industry executive. “We just feel very betrayed by someone who claims to be a son of Michigan, knows the auto industry inside and out, and when we needed him he wasn’t there for us,” Brewer said.
The Obama campaign is running a “Made in America” TV ad in Michigan that calls out Romney and the rest of the GOP field for opposing the help that Obama and former President George W. Bush gave the industry. The liberal group MoveOn.org is running a similar ad in Michigan through the primary, hitting Romney for “turning his back on thousands of workers by advocating that America let Detroit go bankrupt.” It’s called “He’d Let America Fail.” Steven Rattner, Obama’s onetime “car czar,” wrote an op-ed in Friday’s New York Times saying Romney’s prescription for what should have been done back in 2008 was “utter fantasy.”
In his speech on Friday, Romney said that as president he would “go to work to help Michigan, to help America, to help Detroit, and to make sure that we have a brighter, prosperous future for our kids and for their kids.” He admired the “Detroit-made automobiles” on the street and said “Gov. [Rick] Snyder will have an ally in the White House.”
Snyder is one power who supported the bailout but also went to bat for Romney. The Detroit News, which endorsed Romney, is another. “I think that’s what Tuesday’s all about,” Brewer said. “If he’s the nominee, it will come down to in the general election, are there enough people in Michigan willing to look past his opposition to the auto rescue? That’s in contrast to the president, who was there for us when the auto industry needed rescue, and frankly when it wasn’t popular to do so.”
Following Romney’s speech at Ford Field, the Obama campaign released a statement criticizing Romney for standing “in the midst of a monument to an industry he would have let go bankrupt, leading to the elimination of 1.4 million American jobs.” As a bonus for Democrats, the huge arena was nearly empty and Romney remarked afterward that his wife drives “a couple of Cadillacs” – yet another reminder that he’s rich. Democrats and journalists instantly took to Twitter and another chapter in Romney’s campaign narrative was born.
The visuals at Obama’s speech will no doubt be better. There will be 1,700 UAW leaders at the conference and it’s hard to imagine they won’t be cheering when Obama discusses, as Earnest said he will, “the steps we took to get our economy back on track, including saving the American auto industry, which has created approximately 200,000 new jobs since the spring of 2009."
Sophie Quinton contributed contributed to this article.