By Michael Levenson, Globe Staff
SOUTHFIELD, Mich -- Mitt Romney capitalized on his local roots and business experience to win the Republican presidential primary in his native Michigan tonight, securing a victory that revived his campaign and vindicated his decision to more fully embrace economic concerns.
After struggling to connect with voters in Iowa, where he presented himself as a social conservative, and in New Hampshire, where he retooled his message as a fiscal conservative, Romney found more comfortable footing in Michigan. Not only was he familiar with the local culture, he focused on his resume, saying his business background would help him reinvigorate the Michigan economy, by far the most important issue for voters.
Facing what was essentially a do-or-die contest in the state where he was born and raised, he averted another potentially disastrous "silver medal," as he called his second-place finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire. He can now use his win to motivate donors, voters, and campaign staffers as he heads into the South Carolina primary on Saturday. With no clear front-runner for the nomination, he has the most delegates after also winning the Wyoming caucuses earlier this month.
"Tonight marks the beginning of a comeback, a comeback for America," he told raucous supporters in a suburban Detroit hotel ballroom. "Tonight is a victory of optimism over Washington-style pessimism."
Within the campaign, there was a sense that Romney played to his strengths in Michigan.
US Representative Pete Hoekstra, a Michigan Republican who is backing Romney, said the emphasis on economic issues was "a perfect fit for Mitt."
"That is what this guy has done all his life," Hoekstra said today.
In Iowa, Romney tried to edge out Mike Huckabee among evangelical Christians. As a Mormon, Romney sought common ground by emphasizing his opposition to abortion and gay marriage, but confronted wariness about his religion and skepticism about his sincerity.
In New Hampshire, he castigated John McCain as a Washington insider. Romney appealed to fiscal conservatives by promising to cut taxes and spending and fix Washington, but was attacked for changing positions on some issues.
Unlike Iowa or New Hampshire, Romney did not air any TV ads attacking his rivals in Michigan, but he vastly outspent them.
Romney said he felt at home. "You know, somehow everything just seems right here," Romney told hundreds of business leaders at the Detroit Economic Club on Monday.
By turns nostalgic and optimistic, he often invoked his father, a three-term governor and auto executive, as a link to Detroit's glory days in the 1950s and 1960s, when business was booming and jobs were plentiful. He focused so squarely on Michigan, he often sounded more like a candidate for statewide office than the presidency.
"I've got Michigan in my DNA," he told the Detroit Economic Club. "I've got it in my heart and I've got cars in my bloodstream."
Michigan is struggling with the highest unemployment rate in the nation, 7.4 percent in November. But Romney struck a relentlessly upbeat tone, telling a primary-day rally at a warehouse in Grand Rapids yesterday that the future was "every bit as bright as the glorious days of the past."
His prescription called for quintupling, to $20 billion, of federal spending on research into automotive sciences and a pledge to convene business, labor, congressional, and state leaders to confront the auto industry’s problems within his first 100 days in the White House. But more than policy, he sought to convey a passion and compassion for Michigan.
His biggest applause line was his pledge to "not rest" until "Michigan is back." Even his jokes seemed to fly better. One stock anecdote about his children giving him a junky 1962 Rambler for his 60th birthday got bigger laughs in Michigan than anywhere in Iowa or New Hampshire.
Voters seemed to respond well, seeing in Romney a competent businessman and a lifeline to a better future.
"He's been in business, he knows what's going on," said Dave Kutter, 67, a retired manufacturing engineer at a furniture maker, who was at the rally in Grand Rapids. "Michigan is a business state and we need businesses here."
Romney plans to head Wednesday morning to South Carolina, where he will embark on a bus tour and faces a tough challenge from Huckabee, McCain, and, to a lesser extent, Fred Thompson. South Carolina has a large population of evangelicals, who form Huckabee's base, and of veterans, who tend to lean toward McCain.
Political analysts said he can expect a burst of momentum from his Michigan win, but will still have a long way to go to winning the nomination.
"Winning a major state sends a signal to people across the country that Romney is to be taken seriously as presidential candidate," said Arthur Lupia, a University of Michigan political scientist. "I don't know how strong a signal it is."