DEARBORN, Mich. -- Promising to build "a new American dream," Mitt Romney launched his bid to become the nation's 44th president yesterday by casting himself as an optimistic and forward-thinking Washington outsider with the experience and vision to lead the country into a new age of innovation.
Despite the bloody war in Iraq, a growing nuclear threat from Iran, and the ongoing specter of terrorism, he said, Americans should be bullish about their future. But he warned that the country would overcome its challenges only by adhering to traditional Republican values of limited government, lower taxes, military power, and strong families.
"Our hopes and dreams will inspire us, for Americans are an optimistic people," Romney said to friends, family, and supporters gathered at the Henry Ford Museum, which celebrates the automotive pioneer. "But hope alone is just crossing fingers, when what we need is industrious hands. It's time for hope and action. It's time to do, as well as to dream."
The event, which Romney's campaign said drew 800 people, was rich in symbolism and nostalgia for Romney, who grew up in the nearby suburb of Bloomfield Hills and whose father, George, was an auto executive and three-term Michigan governor. Parked behind Romney on the stage was a white 1960s-era Nash Rambler, which his father introduced as America's first economy car.
Romney's sanguinity may have been reminiscent of the man he now cites as a political hero, former president Ronald W. Reagan, but he was also channeling his father, who made a run at the presidency in 1968. Like his father, Romney, 59, used his announcement speech to call for greater personal responsibility and for reining in federal spending.
"It's time for innovation and transformation in Washington," he said. "It's what our country needs. It's what our people deserve."
Romney, who touted his business experience and stewardship of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, also offered a pointed indictment of the Beltway world, saying, "the halls of government are clogged with petty politics and stuffed with peddlers of influence."
"I don't believe Washington can be transformed from within by lifelong politicians," he said, a veiled critique of presidential rivals such as Senator John McCain of Arizona, a Republican. "I don't believe Washington can be transformed by someone . . . who's never even managed a corner store, let alone the largest enterprise in the world."
In launching his campaign, Romney joins one of the most wide-open presidential contests in decades. His Republican challengers, aside from McCain, include former mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani of New York City, Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, and former governor Mike Huckabee of Arkansas.
Even with the soaring language, Romney, dressed in a blue suit and blue-and-white tie, at times struck an uncharacteristically subdued tone, especially in the beginning of his address. The crowd also missed some applause lines, making for some awkward pauses. ("Hi, Mommy!" a boy said loudly into a television camera at one point, causing a brief distraction.) Romney got more forceful deeper into his 20-minute speech.
Despite the penchant for stagecraft, Romney's announcement lacked the vigor of some of his past campaign appearances, including his well-choreographed day long fund-raiser a month ago in Boston that netted more than $6.5 million. But Romney aides made sure the soundtrack -- with songs by Tom Petty and John Mellencamp and patriotic anthems played by Dearborn's Divine Child High School marching band -- reflected the man-from-the- Heartland image that Romney seeks to project.
The only people who spoke before Romney were a minister, former Michigan House speaker Craig DeRoche, and Romney's wife, Ann. "Today, Michigan gets to reclaim Mitt Romney, a man ready to lead this country," DeRoche said.
To supporters in the crowd, Romney's decision to make his announcement in Michigan instead of the more liberal Massachusetts, where he has clashed with political leaders and the media over his shifts to the right on social issues, was a smart one.
"It's the best place in the world to be," said Shelley Murphy, from nearby Livonia, who worked on George Romney's political campaigns in the 1960s when her father was chairman of the state Republican party. "This represents America."
Shelley Taub, a former Michigan state representative who's known Romney's family for years, said many of the those at yesterday's announcement were not people typically active in politics.
"They're here to support Mitt. They've known Mitt their entire life," she said.
Romney offered few specific policy prescriptions in his speech, preferring to stick to broad themes. But he did warn that a premature withdrawal from Iraq would bring chaos, and he reaffirmed his support for President Bush's decision to add 21,500 troops to help secure Baghdad.
It's been clear for more than two years that Romney was preparing a run for the presidency. He created a political action committee in 2004 to help finance his early politicking around the country, and since then he's showered local GOP candidates and organizations with campaign contributions, carefully crafted his speeches and public appearances to appeal to national GOP audiences, and built deep grass-roots organizations in key primary states.
But the pageantry of a formal announcement event has become an essential part of modern presidential campaigns. Romney's friends and family seemed to revel in it, as the candidate hoisted his grandson Parker Mitt ("Parker Mitty" to the family) in the air after his remarks. Even Bob White, a longtime friend of Romney's who can see him anytime he wants, was snapping digital photographs of the former governor as he was dogged by television cameras and people seeking autographs after the announcement. A small group of supporters shook signs and chanted "We want Mitt!"
The Michigan event launched Romney's multistate announcement tour, which also took him to snowy Des Moines, where he addressed supporters in a more intimate setting at the Iowa State Fairgrounds. Perched on a small riser in front of a John Deere tractor, Romney made a similar pitch as supporters held signs with slogans such as "Farmers 4 Mitt" and "Team Romney." The Iowa crowd was smaller -- 300 people, according to the campaign -- but more boisterous than in Michigan.
"It may be cold outside, but it sure is warm here, wow," Romney said at one point in acknowledging the cheers, adding later, "This is gonna be a lot of fun."
Romney's rivals, meanwhile, sought to distract from his big day. Brownback, who is challenging Romney for the conservative primary vote, issued a press release accusing Romney's Michigan field director of circulating a misleading e-mail about Brownback's record on abortion. The staff member, Brownback's campaign said, tried to paint him as an abortion-rights supporter in the past, when he has always opposed abortion rights.
McCain's campaign trumpeted the support of three members of the Michigan House who had originally signed on to Romney's Michigan steering committee.
Romney was headed back to the Henry Ford Museum last night for a fund-raiser with more than 400 people; his campaign hoped the event would bring in between $500,000 and $1 million. Today, Romney is scheduled to make stops in South Carolina and New Hampshire before hosting a fund-raiser in Boston tomorrow night and heading to Florida on Friday.
After the Michigan kick off yesterday, Ann Romney spoke briefly to reporters about how the family would handle the campaign. She said they had been reading letters that Romney's parents wrote about their experience about four decades ago, and they would prepare the best they could.
"The opportunity's there, the door's open, and we're going to go through it," she said.
Scott Helman can be reached at email@example.com.