WASHINGTON - Don't tell Republican Mitt Romney that you can't ever go home again.
Under intense pressure following two losses in the U.S. presidential nomination race, Romney is trading on his Michigan upbringing to finally land a win in Tuesday's primary.
He's hoping a victory there will put his struggling campaign on track after Arizona Senator John McCain beat him last week in New Hampshire and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee took first place in Iowa.
Romney, 60, who was raised in a wealthy Detroit suburb and spent summers in Canada, has been reminding voters for days about his roots in the border state, even posing for pictures on the weekend with his Grade 1 teacher Gloria Blazo.
He also stopped by the state office building named for his late father, George, former president of the defunct American Motors Corp., Michigan governor for six years in the 1960s and a 1968 presidential candidate who lost the nomination to Richard Nixon.
Romney, a multimillionaire businessman, has vowed to rejuvenate the state's devastated auto sector, saying he's got the industry "in his blood veins."
The failing economy is the top issue in Michigan, which has lost 300,000 manufacturing jobs since 2000 and has the highest unemployment rate in the country at 7.4 per cent in November. The mortgage crisis has also hit hard.
But it's far from clear whether Romney's associations have a lot of resonance and many voters probably don't even remember his father, said Vincent Hutchings, a political science professor at the University of Michigan.
"I'm not sure that's going to help him as much as he would like," said Hutchings, adding the Michigan race could be pivotal for Romney's chances of winning the Republican nomination.
"He will certainly be hurt if he doesn't start winning and this is one of the best places to do it."
If Romney is eliminated from what is still a crowded field that includes Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson, it means losing the Republican candidate that perhaps knows Canada best.
As a teenager, he spent summers in Grand Bend, a southwestern Ontario beach town on Lake Huron, and later took his own five young boys there. The Romney family still owns the lakefront cottage they bought in the 1950s.
But the former Massachusetts governor may surface in a high-profile spot even if he doesn't become the Republican nominee in this November's general election.
"There's potential for him," said U.S analyst Chris Sands. "He's a strong contender to be in cabinet or maybe a vice-presidential candidate."
Polls suggest Romney and McCain are battling for first place in Michigan, with Huckabee in third. Thompson has been concentrating on the next Republican primary in South Carolina while Giuliani is looking to Florida and then other large states that vote Feb. 5.
McCain won the state in his first presidential bid in 2000.
It wasn't supposed to turn out this way for Romney, who spent a fortune in advertising in a bid to establish himself as the front-runner by capturing the early states.
But all he's managed to do so far is win Wyoming, where none of the other candidates even bothered campaigning.
Romney has vowed to stay in the race for the long haul. He's been plagued by accusations he's changed positions on key social issues like abortion rights, which he used to support, for political gain.
Many evangelicals are unhappy about his Mormon faith and have flocked instead to Huckabee, a former Baptist minister whom they feel more closely mirrors their beliefs.
Romney, who co-founded a highly successful investment firm and is worth a reported $250 million, has been selling himself in Michigan as the executive who can turn things around, just like his father saved American Motors from collapse in the late 1950s by concentrating exclusively on the compact Rambler line.
"I'll make a commitment," he said last week. "If I'm president, that one-state recession is over."
McCain says he's only telling the truth by admitting that some auto jobs are gone forever and his kind of "straight talk" is what's required.
But Romney took another shot at him Sunday.
"The last thing you need in a state like Michigan is more pessimism and if he's saying those automotive jobs aren't coming back, well how about the jobs that are still here?" Romney asked.
"I'm the only one (who) was born and raised in Michigan, that's got the automobile industry in my blood veins, that has actually invested in Michigan, made investments in this state."
Romney is calling for investment into energy and fuel technology and better trade deals to rebuild the auto industry. He has called new tougher automobile mileage standards "an anvil" and a form of "unfounded mandate."
"If I'm president of the United States, I will not rest until Michigan is back, and I will bring it back with your help," he told a rally at Lawrence Technical University
"I'm going to fight for every single good job."
Romney also questioned Huckabee's viability.
"This is not the kind of Republican that I think people expect as somebody who is going to lead our party."
For his part, Huckabee took a swipe at Romney in a television ad.
"I believe most Americans want their next president to remind them of the guy they worked with, not the guy who laid them off."
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