WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney likes to tell people in Michigan he's one of them — and whether voters see him that way could be crucial in determining his political fate.
Romney, 64, who's in a tense battle for the Republican presidential nomination, grew up in the Detroit area. His father George was a popular Michigan governor.
But George Romney left office 43 years ago. And Mitt Romney made his political and business reputation in Massachusetts, rescued the Olympics in Salt Lake City and has homes in New Hampshire, California and elsewhere.
Now, however, Romney is telling voters he's "a son of Detroit," and he badly needs the favorite son vote as he fights to win the critical Feb. 28 Michigan primary.
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Experts see the local ties as a plus.
"I think it will matter," said Richard Milliman, George Romney's former press secretary.
But the links also put enormous pressure on Romney.
"A loss in what could be considered his home state...may be disastrous to his campaign," said Victoria Mantzopoulos, professor of political science at the University of Detroit Mercy. "The loss of a state that should have been a shoo-in will undoubtedly lead to a loss of campaign momentum and fundraising efforts."
Romney's willing to try. Last week, he wrote an op-ed in the Detroit News that said, "I am a son of Detroit" who "grew up drinking Vernors," a popular local ginger ale. He went on to explain how the auto industry bailout was "crony capitalism on a grand scale" and sharply criticized the Obama administration's efforts to help the ailing industry.
Romney has also hosted a "Welcome Home Rally" in Grand Rapids. He spoke fondly of his father in campaign speeches. And he's running an ad in which he recalls, "When I grew up in Michigan it was exciting to be here. Remember going to the Detroit Auto Show with my dad. That was a big deal."
Milliman observed: "I've seen more pictures of George Romney in the last month or so than I've seen in a long time."
Pollster Scott Mitchell thought Romney's roots would be a plus, saying, "He hasn't lived here in a long time, but the Romney name has been around here for a long time."
Romney's brother Scott is active in Michigan affairs, and his former sister-in-law ran for the U.S. Senate in the state in the 1990s. In 2008, Romney touted his state ties and won the GOP primary over a hard-charging Sen. John McCain, who eventually got the nomination. Exit polls showed 42 percent of voters thought Romney's Michigan background was important.
His Michigan roots are deep. The family lived in a well-to-do Detroit neighborhood, and later in suburban Bloomfield Hills. He entered the suburb's private Cranbrook Schools in 1959, spending seventh through twelfth grades there, first as a day student and later as a boarder.
Romney's three siblings also attended the schools, and he met future wife Ann Davies when he was a senior and she was a sophomore. His father delivered the school's commencement address in 1965.
According to the senior yearbook, Mitt Romney was involved in cross-country, the Glee Club, Pre-Med Club, Church Cabinet, Pep Club, Blue Key Club, American Field Service, World Affairs Seminar and Speculator's Club. He was homecoming committee chair and assistant editor of the yearbook.
Romney adored his father, who served as governor from 1963 to 1969. On Feb. 7, the day he lost three GOP contests to former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Romney reflected on "lessons I learned from Dad."
He remembered how his father "apprenticed, as a lath-and-plaster carpenter, and he was darn good at it. He learned how to put a handful of nails in his mouth and spit them out, point forward. On his honeymoon, he and Mom drove across the country. Dad sold aluminum paint along the way, to pay for gas and hotels."
His father, he said, never gave up. He believed in an America where "a lath-and-plaster man could work his way up to running a little car company called American Motors and end up governor of a state where he had once sold aluminum paint."
Invoking Dad, though, carries risks. George Romney was part of the GOP's moderate wing, helped create Michigan's first personal income tax and refused to support conservative GOP presidential nominee Barry Goldwater in 1964.
"I'm not sure George would agree with a lot of what Mitt is saying," said Bernie Porn, president of EPIC-MRA, an independent Lansing-based survey research firm.
George Romney was also known for his bluntness. His bid for the presidency ended in 1967 when he said his support for the Vietnam War was the result of "brainwashing" by U.S. military and diplomatic officials in Vietnam.
Tagg Romney, Mitt's son, has said: "My grandfather had a temper. He would get a righteous indignation about things. Dad is a lot more measured and a lot better at controlling things."
Mitt Romney is trying hard to establish himself as the kind of conservative his father may not have courted. But will anyone care about the distinction between father and son? Probably not, say analysts, who note that memories of George Romney have faded while his son has been running for president for years.
Bill Ballenger, editor of the Inside Michigan Politics newsletter, said: "It's not as though Mitt Romney's all of a sudden resurfaced after 50 years."
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