ROMULUS, Mich. — As Americans grow increasingly anxious about whether the economy is sinking into recession, Mitt Romney may find that just being himself is the best way to campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.
The former Massachusetts governor has spent months, and millions, trying to convince voters that he's the true heir to Ronald Reagan and a devout social conservative. For that he's drawn scorn from critics who remember his moderate views a few years ago on matters such as abortion and gay rights.
Romney scored his first big Republican primary victory Tuesday in Michigan largely by emphasizing his background as a successful business executive who knows how to foster innovation, change and prosperity. That may be his best, and most authentic, sales pitch.
"He had tried for months to be Jerry Falwell, when he should have been running as Lee Iacocca," said Dennis Goldford, a professor of politics at Iowa's Drake University. Falwell was the founder of the Moral Majority; Iacocca is an auto industry legend who helped develop the Ford Mustang and rescued the sinking Chrysler Corp. in the 1980s.
In the weeks ahead, the presidential campaign will move into states with potentially big economic problems at a time when financial well-being has vaulted to the top of voters' concerns.
From November 2006 to November 2007, the jobless rate in Florida, which holds its primary Jan. 29, rose a full percentage point to 4.3 percent. In California, which votes Feb. 5, unemployment was up nine-tenths of a percent. In Illinois, which also holds its primary that day, the rate jumped 1.2 percent.
Add to that growing consumer worries virtually everywhere over falling home values, $3-a-gallon gasoline and rising home-heating costs, and Romney's resume may become his most important asset.
Romney's background includes creating Bain Capital, a successful venture-capital investment firm, and rescuing the scandal-racked 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, where he erased a $379 million operating deficit.
At Bain, Romney notes, his success stories include the Staples office supply chain, which his firm helped get started in 1986. It also aided Domino's Pizza, Brookstone and Sports Authority. Today, Bain itself has about 2,000 employees worldwide and Romney is worth several hundred million dollars.
His history, though, also could subject him to new scrutiny.
Massachusetts AFL-CIO legislative director Tim Sullivan brands Romney a "vulture capitalist" who invested in firms that cut jobs and closed plants. Romney argues that his ability to help companies created jobs.
His tenure as Massachusetts governor from 2003 until last January left behind a lot of unimpressed people, including former Republican Gov. Jane Swift.
"Mitt Romney has a reputation of saying anything to win. A comparison of his record versus his rhetoric on the economy shows why," said Swift, who was pushed aside in 2002 so that Romney could run and now backs Arizona Sen. John McCain's White House bid.
When Romney took office, he inherited a $3.2 billion budget deficit. He eliminated it while avoiding any broad-based tax increase. He closed corporate tax loopholes, which brought in an estimated $400 million annually, and increased fees for a number of services, which produced $250 million to $500 million.
Romney spokesman Kevin Madden said this wasn't a tax increase but "user-based fees, many of which hadn't been brought into line with what the administration of services was costing."
Michael J. Widmer, the president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, a Boston-based research group, had a different take: "He raised corporate taxes."
To be sure, Romney's business background isn't enough to win over some voters.
"Romney's too smooth for me," said Cheryl Terhaar, a nurse in Holland, Mich. "He's kind of fake," judged Andrew Franks, a chemistry researcher from Grand Haven.
But they were in the minority Tuesday.
Exit polls showed that economic issues were Michigan voters' overwhelming concern, and they picked the businessman with the golden resume. They liked Romney's pitch about his long record of bringing together all kinds of different interests and finding solutions. They heard him talk about how he helped steer a comprehensive health-care bill through the Democrat-dominated Massachusetts legislature.
"I like his business background," said Rich Fettig, a Royal Oak businessman. Pete Palombit, a Troy insurance executive, called Romney's business experience "tremendous."
The question for Romney is whether his Michigan pitch will work anywhere else. The state's economy is in worse shape than any other state's, and Romney, as the son of a former Michigan auto executive and governor, had a unique claim to understanding what makes the local economy tick.
"There's no doubt the country's in a slowdown, but remember he was playing this week on his home turf," said Peter Brown, the assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. "Let's see how he does on the road."
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