WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney has a new high-risk target in his campaign for president: labor unions.
He's casting himself as one of the strongest anti-union candidates in memory, a move he hopes will appeal to anti-union conservatives, open rival Rick Santorum to charges of a liberal pro-union voting record, win the pivotal Michigan primary on Feb. 28 and cement his now shaky grasp on the Republican nomination.
Yet should it work, the union-bashing campaign offers uncertain prospects in a general-election campaign, particularly in the unionized, industrial Rust Belt. States there such as Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin will be key battlegrounds. A changing political and economic landscape there makes it impossible to predict how voters would react.
"Among Republicans, it plays fine," said Republican pollster Whit Ayres. "Down the road, there may be some issues."
Campaigning in Michigan, Romney is striking a far different note on organized labor than his late father did when he chaired American Motors from 1954-1962 and enjoyed good relations with unions. Instead, Mitt Romney is is ripping labor unions at every turn.
"Once upon a time, labor unions fought to secure important protections for American workers and help our economy grow," Romney's campaign said this week. "Unfortunately, today they too often stand as obstacles to growth and fight against the workers they are supposed to serve."
He's slamming the federal bailout of Chrysler and General Motors, calling it a corrupt bargain between Democrats and the United Auto Workers that gave the union more control in exchange for campaign donations.
"I call it crony capitalism," Romney said this week. "I've taken on union bosses before. I'm happy to take them on again because I happen to believe that you can protect the interests of the American taxpayers and you can protect a great industry like automobiles without having to give in to the UAW, and I sure won't."
Romney's also ripping Santorum for siding with unions while he was a congressman and senator from Pennsylvania, calling him "big labor's favorite senator."
Romney complains that Santorum voted against a right-to-work proposal that would have stopped the mandatory payment of union dues; voted to maintain the Davis-Bacon Act requiring the federal government to pay workers higher construction wages; and voted for a bill to prohibit businesses from hiring permanent replacements for striking workers.
The former governor of Massachusetts also vows a robust anti-union agenda if elected president, including:
_ Supporting states pursuing right-to-work laws;
_ Amending the National Labor Relations Act to guarantee secret ballots in union elections, which unions oppose;
_ Prohibiting unions from using dues automatically deducted from paychecks for politics;
_ Reversing an executive order from President Barack Obama requiring government agencies to use union labor on some projects.
By itself, attacking the auto companies' bailout in the home of Chrysler and General Motors is not as risky as it might first appear. While voters from union households made up a third of the Michigan general election vote in 2008, they are mostly Democrats. They went for Barack Obama 67 percent to 32 percent over Republican John McCain in 2008, helping lock up the state and its 17 Electoral College votes for Obama.
Union members went for Obama by a more lopsided 71 percent to 27 percent.
"Labor unions are not popular among likely Republican primary voters," said Steve Mitchell, a Republican pollster in the state. "Attacking labor unions in Michigan is not a bad strategy."
Romney's push for right-to-work laws in states also might not be as controversial as it once might have been.
In Michigan, Republican business executive Rick Snyder avoided divisive labor issues when he ran for governor in 2010, telling voters he would not push for a right-to-work law. He won, and now backs Romney.
Indiana this month became the first state in the industrial Midwest to enact a right-to-work law that forbids requiring workers to join a union.
In neighboring Ohio, voters support enacting a right-to-work law by a margin of 54 percent to 40 percent, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released this week. In Ohio, Democrats still oppose right-to-work by 61 percent to 31 percent, but independents support the idea 55 percent to 39 percent and Republicans support it 77 percent to 20 percent.
Still, a strong campaign against unions likely would not sell as well in a general election as in Republican primaries.
While Americans generally think less of unions than in decades past, they still have a generally favorable opinion. The Gallup Poll found in August that 52 percent of Americans approved of labor unions and 42 percent disapproved. That slender majority was down from 60 percent at the same point in 2001, and down sharply from 72 percent in 1936, during the Great Depression.
"The general election is a bigger question," said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. "Some of those swing voters you want are union members, the people we used to call Reagan Democrats. They may be torn."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow Steven Thomma on Twitter
For more McClatchy politics coverage visit Planet Washington
McClatchy Newspapers 2012