Campaigning in Michigan on Thursday night, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney reached out to Tea Party voters — a segment of the party that he has had a hard time winning over in previous states this primary season.
Michigan votes Tuesday, and polls show the race between Romney and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum to be very tight. Santorum is counting on the Tea Party to see him as the true conservative option in the race, but Romney is challenging that claim.
Milford, Mich., is a rural community about a 45-minute drive northwest of Detroit. Romney appeared at a local banquet hall there that eventually filled up with some 500 people.
Among the very first to arrive was 55-year-old Tea Party activist Tom Petiprin, who said he doesn't know whom he'll vote for in Tuesday's primary. He hoped to hear Romney speak and size him up in person.
"The thing that concerns me is that I view him as a moderate, and that's not really what I want," Petiprin said.
Romney took the stage just after 7 p.m. His speech included the usual references to his early years in Michigan — he was born in Detroit and lamented the city's troubled condition today.
But most of Romney's speech was about President Obama.
"He can't talk about housing values. He can't talk about unemployment statistics. He can't talk about how Iran is settling out or how the Arab Spring is working out. He can't talk about 24 million Americans out of work," Romney said.
But there was also criticism of Rick Santorum. Romney didn't mention him by name, but he reminded the audience that in the previous night's debate, Santorum was forced to explain why he supported the No Child Left Behind law when he was a senator — a vote Santorum says he regrets.
"One of the candidates last night spent most of the evening describing why it was he voted against his principles, and he said, 'You got to take one for the team now and then.' Well, my team is the United States of America," Romney said as the crowd cheered.
After the speech, there was a question-and-answer session — in the form of previously submitted questions that a moderator read from index cards rather than a direct give-and-take with audience members.
Romney was asked how he would debate Obama on the issue of health care. The Massachusetts law Romney signed was a model for what critics call Obamacare.
"First thing I'd say to him is, 'Mr. President, you say that you copied a lot of what you did after what we did in my state. How come you didn't give me a call? How come you didn't pick up the phone? I'd have told you what worked and what didn't work,' " Romney said. "There's something known as the 10th Amendment of the Constitution. And under the Constitution, states are the places to take on issues like this, not the federal government."
This could have been a difficult crowd for Romney — it wasn't. Many lines were cheered. There were plenty of supporters here.
"I like his policies. At this time he's kind of a fix-it man rather than someone introducing all this new stuff all at once," said Cathy Shinn, a Tea Party member from nearby Brighton. Does America need a fix-it man? "Definitely," Shinn said.
But there were plenty of skeptics as well. Gary Kwasniuk, 54, stressed that his big concern is beating Obama. As for Romney, he said, "I'm buying into it, but I haven't been convinced."
At the end of the event, Petiprin — who at the beginning said he was undecided — said he was glad he came and that he thought Romney's answers were good.
"I like his message. And like I said, whoever the Republicans put out as a candidate will probably be my man. But we're in the primary right now, and I've got a choice to make. And I don't know if I'll pull the lever for Mitt yet," Petiprin said.
For Romney, it was a chance to connect with a group that has been very distrustful of him during the campaign so far. His appearance was a sign that he is not conceding the Tea Party to Santorum or any other candidate.