'Car guy' Romney takes pitch to near empty stadium

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White House hopeful Mitt Romney styled himself as a Michigan-bred "car guy" whose wife drives "a couple of Cadillacs" as he tried to woo Motor City voters ahead of a key primary.

Giving what was billed as a major economic policy speech days before state Republicans choose their presidential nominee, Romney presented a plan to lower taxes and cut spending -- and insisted that he was the only candidate capable of beating Democrat Barack Obama in the November 6 presidential election.

But the speech may be remembered more for its setting and Romney's off-hand remarks rather than its substance.

Before 1,200 guests of the Detroit Economic Club, Romney took to the podium on the 30 yard line of Ford Field stadium -- home of the NFL's Detroit Lions -- surrounded by 65,000 empty seats.

It was a jarring contrast to Romney's previous carefully packed events and to the rock star welcomes that Obama received during his candidacy four years ago.

Undeterred, Romney played up his Michigan roots and love of the state as he tried to break the statistical dead heat with rival Rick Santorum, a religious conservative and former senator.

"You know, the trees are the right height. The streets are just right. I like the fact that most of the cars I see are Detroit-made automobiles," he said to polite applause.

But Romney may have stumbled when listing what seemed like a garage-full of cars, another allusion to his $250 million fortune that has not sat well with the glum economic mood of the country.

"I drive a Mustang and a Chevy pick-up truck. Ann drives a couple of Cadillacs, actually. And I used to have a Dodge truck."

He said rivals Santorum and former speaker Newt Gingrich were creatures of Washington, without needed business sense.

"I have the credibility on the economy. The best and the only way we have to get Obama out of the White House is if we nominate someone whose career isn't politics," he said. "And that's what I represent."

Romney has so far failed to dominate in a state where he was born, where his father was once governor and which he won handily in his failed 2008 bid for the Republican nomination.

The Michigan primary, on February 28, could be a watershed moment in a Republican race that has seen Romney challenged by a seemingly endless series of rivals from the conservative wing of the party.

The state is a critical must-win, said state senator Randy Richardville, a co-chairman of the Romney campaign in the state.

"He can get past it if he doesn't win," Richardville said. "But the rest of the country will be watching Michigan. This is his hometown."

Romney on Friday doubled down on an election pitch that has focused heavily on his business acumen: according to the former venture capitalist and ex-Massachusetts governor, cutting taxes is the quickest and only way to restore jobs.

Romney called for a 20 percent reduction in income tax for all Americans, and lowering the corporate tax ten points to 25 percent. He also called for reducing federal spending to 20 percent of gross domestic product, down from 24 percent.

"For 36 months the unemployment rate has been over eight percent," Romney said, lambasting Obama's economic record. "I want to restore America's promise."

The campaign here has been dominated by economic concerns. Unemployment is stuck at 9.3 percent in the "rust belt" state, well above the national average of 8.3 percent.

But more than joblessness, the government bailouts of General Motors and Chrysler have loomed large.

Throughout the campaign Romney has scrambled to defend a 2008 article in which he argued it was necessary to "let Detroit go bankrupt."

"If General Motors, Ford and Chrysler get the bailout that their chief executives asked for yesterday, you can kiss the American automotive industry goodbye," he wrote in the pages of the New York Times in November of that year.

Nearly three years after a $50 billion-plus bailout, General Motors is posting record $7.6 billion annual profits and has wrestled the title of world's largest automaker back from Toyota.

On Friday, Romney insisted unions, government regulation and mismanagement were at fault for the American auto industry's pre-bailout decline and warned they could yet imperil the sector.

"For Michigan to be strong and vital, the auto industry has to be growing and thriving. I hope we learn lessons from the experiences of the past," he said.

"We should get the government out of General Motors so that the future of that company is determined by the demands of the marketplace, not by the preferences of bureaucrats in Washington."

In the audience, Moses Awe, 54, attended the event with his wife Theresa, and emerged supportive of the Romney plan -- "It was fantastic, very impressive, great ideas," he said, adding he had been "waiting for someone to come out with an economic (plan) that made sense."

Another supporter, Kyle McGrath, 33, was swayed by Romney's business credentials, and ability to get things done as governor in Massachusetts despite Democrats dominating that state legislature at the time.

"I'm not looking for perfect," McGrath said. "I'm just looking for someone who can beat Obama."