DETROIT (AP) — Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney defended himself Thursday in the heart of auto country against questions about why he opposed a federal bailout of General Motors and Chrysler two years ago.
At campaign stops in and around Detroit, Romney said the automakers should have gone through a private bankruptcy without the federal aid.
"Some people believe in bailouts. I believe in the process of the law," the businessman and former Massachusetts governor told reporters. "The idea of just writing a check, which is what the auto executives were asking for, was not the right course. ... It would have been best had the auto companies gone through the bankruptcy process without having taken $17 billion from government."
Although Romney won his first and only 2008 presidential primary in Michigan, he has run into a more skeptical reception during his first campaign swing through the state since kicking off his 2012 campaign a week ago. Romney spoke out forcefully after the 2008 election against a federal bailout of General Motors and Chrysler, an initiative that the state Republican and Democratic parties both considered a matter of life or death for the companies.
On Thursday, dozens of autoworkers and Democrats protested outside a restaurant in a Detroit suburb as Romney spoke inside, eager to remind voters of his position.
"For a guy whose father basically ran Michigan to not know the importance of the industry, and to come here and ask for money, I just don't understand," said Larry Ring, 52, a Ford electrician from Wayne County's Canton Township. Romney's late father, George, led American Motors from 1954 to 1962 before he became governor in the 1960s.
Michigan Democratic Chairman Mark Brewer also was outside the restaurant, criticizing the presidential hopeful.
"If he had his way, the auto companies would be out of business. And he has the audacity to come here?" he asked.
Nevertheless, Romney got a warm reception from diners inside the Senate Coney Island. He paid in cash for scrambled eggs, potatoes and toast at the counter before spending half an hour greeting voters. He signed a baseball and a copy of the Detroit Free Press with his photo on the front page for Lawrence Taylor, a 55-year-old retired state health care worker from Oakland County's Commerce Township. The longtime autograph collector also has the signature of Romney's father.
Sherwin Collins, a 77-year-old retired Wayne State University administrator, gripped Romney's hand and told him he'd attended one of his father's campaign events during the elder Romney's short-lived 1968 presidential campaign.
"He was a superstar in those days," Collins said.
Romney's roots — he grew up in Detroit — and residual warm feelings for his late father could give him an edge in Michigan. On Thursday, he spoke of those ties and his "love" for the auto industry and American cars.
"His family is steeped in the history of the auto industry. The tradition is part of his family," said Mike Bishop, a Rochester attorney and former Republican leader in the Michigan Senate who hasn't decided whom he will support for president.
The auto industry bailout may be a tough issue here for any Republican in the presidential race, since many GOP leaders have blasted it as an example of the government's fiscal irresponsibility.
Democrats, including President Barack Obama, have trumpeted the federal intervention as a triumph, stressing that the companies are now doing well after going through bankruptcy and then restructuring. Chrysler has repaid most of the $10.5 billion in taxpayer money that it received. GM has paid back just over half of its $50 billion in aid and is regaining market share. Together the companies have added about 50,000 jobs nationwide. The White House says the bailout ultimately will cost taxpayers $14 billion, far less than expected.
Industry officials and others argue that a federal rejection would have led to liquidation and the loss of more than a million jobs nationwide.
In his Michigan appearances, Romney talked up his background as a business consultant and venture capitalist, saying it gives him the skills to help reverse the job loss that has given the state a 10.2 percent unemployment rate. The message echoes one used by former computer executive Rick Snyder in his successful 2010 campaign for Michigan governor.
Considered one of the GOP 2012 front-runners, Romney had no trouble attracting supporters to fundraisers Tuesday and Wednesday in Grand Rapids and the well-heeled Detroit suburbs of Grosse Pointe and Birmingham. On Thursday, he criticized Obama for slow pace of the economic recovery in Michigan and the nation.
"The economy overall has been terribly managed by the president. I don't think there's any way he can defend his economic record," Romney told reporters.
He also had a lighter moment when speaking to students at Bizdom U, a center in Detroit for teaching young adults to be entrepreneurs. Asked by an official if he'd be willing to return at a later date to serve as a mentor, Romney joked, "It's conceivable that in 18 months, I will need a job."
His advisers have said Romney is counting heavily on winning Florida and Michigan, although neither state has yet set a date for their 2012 contests.
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