Posted on June 19, 2012 at 7:47 AM
FRANKENMUTH, Mich. (AP) -- Mitt Romney is coming home - this time as the likely Republican presidential nominee.
"I think Michigan's a state I can win," a relaxed, jovial Romney told reporters on his campaign plane as he left Iowa en route to his home state, the final stop on a five-day, six-state Midwestern tour.
Asked if carrying the state in November would carry special meaning, Romney said, "If I win in Michigan, then I become the president, and that would mean a lot to me personally."
Romney is the former governor of Massachusetts, but he was born in Michigan and raised in the suburbs outside Detroit. His father, George Romney, ran a car company - American Motors Corp. - and went on to run the state as governor.
In 1968, George Romney tried - and failed - to win the Republican presidential nomination, a prize his son is set to be officially awarded at the Republican National Convention in August. It's been a long journey that began nearly six years ago, when Mitt Romney launched his unsuccessful bid for the 2008 GOP nod.
Michigan is one of several states that could make the difference in November. It's not on his campaign's list of top targets - that's reserved for what the campaign sees as traditionally Republican states like Virginia and North Carolina and swing states like Ohio and Florida.
But it's one of a number of Rust Belt states President Barack Obama won in 2008 where Romney's campaign team sees an opportunity.
"There's another level of states that are all states that Obama won last time," said deputy campaign manager Katie Packer Gage, a Michigan native. "And he won't win if he doesn't win them again."
Romney faces an uphill climb in Michigan: There's a strong Democratic base in Detroit, and he's already struggling to explain his opposition to the federal bailout that saved General Motors and Chrysler.
He has three campaign stops in Michigan on Tuesday.
Romney's 2012 campaign has been filled with regular reminders of his Michigan roots. George Romney's photo was tacked to the wall in the campaign bus through the primary. Supporters come to campaign rallies armed with Romney `68 memorabilia and stories about volunteering on his father's presidential campaign.
Romney has talked about his love for Vernors, a distinctive ginger ale that's popular in Michigan and has strong carbonation that sometimes prompts sneezing. When he campaigned here during the primary, Romney was ridiculed for affectionately saying that in Michigan, "the trees are the right height."
And then there are the cars - the product of the industry that's driven Michigan's culture and economy. Romney loves them, and easily recalls exactly what he was driving during memorable moments in his life. On the campaign trail, he frequently mentions the Rambler, the car his father seized on as a way to revive a struggling American Motors.
In Troy, Ohio, on Sunday, Romney climbed into the front seat of an immaculately maintained 1961 Rambler owned by 20-year-old Michael Scheib. "I've got a `63, but it's not in as good condition," Romney told Scheib as the young man took his burger order at the local hamburger shop.
"Brings back memories," he told reporters afterward.
Still, cars caused Romney some problems before the Feb. 28 Michigan primary. During one event, Romney mentioned that Ann drives "a couple of Cadillacs," a comment that helped paint him as out of touch with Americans struggling in a bad economy.
And while Romney's opposition to federal support for General Motors and Chrysler wasn't a big issue in the GOP primary, Democrats are already criticizing him for it. Romney has struggled to clarify his position, saying that he supported the managed bankruptcy that eventually structured GM. Still, he was opposed to facilitating it with the federal money that the Obama administration sent, and Romney attacked the bailouts during the primary campaign.
There are already signs he plans to soften his tone. "He's going to acknowledge, as he has, that President Obama and he ultimately shared the same goal, which was to see the auto industry survive and thrive," said Gage, the deputy campaign manager. "They just had different ways of going about it. He's pleased to see that he does seem to be getting stronger."