Thursday, December 14, 2017

At Ford Field, empty seats steal Romney's thunder

DETROIT — Friday was supposed to be the moment for Mitt Romney's triumphant return to his birthplace, when he would use the cavernous green of Ford Field to deliver a policy address that established him as the lone Republican capable of both fixing the economy and beating President Barack Obama.

But the event served up fresh evidence for Romney critics who say he can't rise to the occasion and rally important elements of the GOP around his candidacy.

The lunchtime speech was delivered from the 30-yard line before 1,200 suited-up business leaders in folding chairs, in a stadium that usually holds 65,000. And his address to members of the Detroit Economic Club contained ideas the former Massachusetts governor has spelled out before.

One new tidbit came when Romney strayed from his prepared remarks to note that he has four cars, including his wife's "couple of Cadillacs" — apparently an attempt to show his personal devotion to American cars. He said he drives a Mustang and a Chevy pickup truck.

In his speech, Romney was trying to show that he was gaining the upper hand in a contentious battle with Rick Santorum going into Tuesday's Michigan primary. Santorum planned to lay out his agenda for his first 100 days in office during an evening campaign stop in Michigan before flying to Tennessee, a sign that he is looking ahead to the following week's Super Tuesday contests.

But at a moment when Romney wanted to project bigness and command, the optics of Ford Field did not help.

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, Romney's state campaign chairman, told reporters that Romney "lit up the house at Ford Field."

Romney began his speech by warning his audience it would be heavy on policy. "This is not exciting and barn-burning, but it's important," he said. The crowd's polite applause was lost in the silence that filled the huge indoor stadium.

Campaign officials said they were not responsible for the selection of Ford Field, and one adviser said he was frustrated that the speech was held at such a huge venue.

"I guess we had a hard time finding a large enough place to meet — and this certainly is," Romney said.

The Detroit Economic Club arranged the event and sold tickets for it ($45 for members; $100 for nonmembers), and when two indoor venues sold out quickly, club officials moved the speech to Ford Field.

According to the latest polls, Romney is on track to edge out Santorum in the Michigan primary, and his campaign has become increasingly confident about his prospects.

In his 23-minute speech, Romney detailed many of the policies he had already proposed to overhaul the tax code, curb spending and address problems with Medicare and Social Security. He added a few new details about some federal programs he would shift to the states, such as food stamps and housing, and rehashed his plan to lower individual income taxes for everyone by 20 percent.

"We have not seen a failure to communicate," Romney said of Obama. "We've seen a failure to lead, and that's why I'm running for president. I want to restore America's promise."

Outside, a couple hundred members of the United Auto Workers union rallied in the sleet to protest Romney's criticism of the auto bailout by the federal government.

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