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Romney name's faded familiarity

In Michigan, vague affection for the father

Mitt and Ann Romney stood inside Michigan's capitol rotunda under a portrait of his late father, George Romney, who has emerged in a central role in his son's campaign for president. Mitt and Ann Romney stood inside Michigan's capitol rotunda under a portrait of his late father, George Romney, who has emerged in a central role in his son's campaign for president. (LM Otero/associated press)
Email|Print| Text size + By Sasha Issenberg
Globe Staff / January 13, 2008

WARREN, Mich. - George Romney may be the closest thing Michigan politics has to the Rambler he popularized as chairman of American Motors: Everyone recalls him fondly, but no one seems able to remember why.

The three-term governor, one-time presidential candidate, and late father of Mitt Romney has emerged in a central role in one more campaign: evoked in his son's speeches, featured in a new campaign ad, and central to the reason the son has banked the future of his candidacy on an ability to deliver the state in Tuesday's primary.

"As you know, my father served as governor here for many years," the former Massachusetts governor said here Friday, one of several references to his roots in Michigan.

That may be all that he can count on voters knowing about his father, who died in 1995. In conversations before Romney's speech, voters - including enthusiastic supporters proudly wearing Romney stickers - expressed vague affection for the father, but little more.

"I didn't know him well, to be honest. I just don't recall who he was. I heard he was a good governor," said Russ Vanderziel, a 67-year-old retiree who had already cast an absentee ballot for Romney in the primary.

One problem is actuarial: Anyone who voted for George Romney in his first gubernatorial race in 1962 - when he left the automotive industry for a political career - would today be at least 66 years old. In addition, the massive population exodus Michigan has suffered suggests that there may be deeper pockets of Romney nostalgia in Albuquerque than in Ann Arbor.

"If you're over 50 years old, you know the governor," said Saul Anuzis, the Republican state party chairman. "I'm 47. I knew him as a Cub Scout. But I couldn't tell you a single thing he did."

George Romney's record eludes easy political summary. He was a technocratic Republican who drastically expanded the size of state government and advanced a civil-rights agenda - standing publicly against his party's southern, rightward drift on those issues in the 1960s. But he also was among the first to campaign against "moral decay," according to Chris Bachelder, an associate vice president at Hillsdale College who has written about Romney.

"Now we're polarized along ideological lines, but then a lot of the division in Michigan was ancestral," Bachelder said, citing the political divisions between the state's early settlers and new transplants. "This was a natural battle and Romney didn't have a stake in it."

After three terms as a popular governor, Romney ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 1968, an early front-runner eventually eclipsed by Richard Nixon. He is most famous for saying in an interview that he had been "brainwashed" by the US government during a wartime trip to Vietnam.

Four times since then, those with the Romney name - George's wife, Lenore, son Scott, and (twice) former daughter-in-law Ronna - have run statewide and failed, questioning how durable the family brand remains in Michigan and whether the remaining goodwill is enough to give Mitt Romney's struggling effort a boost in the home state he left as a teenager.

"I just remember he was the governor of Michigan and Mitt is the native son, so he's who I support," said Irene Maciag, 70, a real-estate agent from Troy. "I don't even know when he was in office. The '50s?" "Sixty-three through '69," interjected John Lambert, a 27-year old history student at Wayne State University who overheard Maciag's conversation and was primed to annotate it. "I've read everything I can about George Romney. I'm a Mormon, and he was the most famous Mormon politician until Mitt."

Lambert said he became interested in the elder Romney in fifth grade when he did a project on Michigan governors. As a 14-year-old, he attended the former governor's funeral.

"In high school, I gave a speech about George Romney," Lambert recalled. "People said, 'You're supposed to give a speech about a famous person, an important person - not a no-name person.' "

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