Perry, Romney look beyond early-voting states

MACKINAC ISLAND, Mich. (AP) — Mitt Romney and Rick Perry are the only two Republican presidential candidates who can afford to spend their time and money in states that aren’t first on the primary calendar.

That helps explain their appearances Saturday in Michigan, where GOP voters will have their say in 2012, but only after Iowa, New Hampshire and several other states that second-tier contenders must win to survive.

“It’s really about these two up here,” said Jase Bolger, the speaker of Michigan’s House of Representatives.

Compare that with 2007, when the Michigan gathering drew seven presidential candidates.

And even though there were two this time, Saturday’s events made clear that Michigan Republicans have just one favorite: Mitt Romney. For the former Massachusetts governor, a Michigan native, the event was a homecoming. His father was governor and Romney spent summers on Mackinac as a child at the governor’s summer residence.

Romney received a hugely enthusiastic welcome. He walked into the dining room where he was giving the dinner keynote speech and wandered through the tables, shaking hands and greeting attendees as old friends. He received a standing ovation when the state attorney general announced, “our own, Michigan, Mitt Romney!”

Romney delivered for the hometown crowd, giving a longer, 20-minute version of his typical stump speech, peppered with references to Michigan cars and ginger ale. He was visibly at ease, and his strong rapport with the crowd allowed him to turn in one of his best performances on the campaign trail so far this year.

“What’s needed in America is not a little stimulus, a little can of gasoline thrown on the fire, but instead, rebuilding the foundation of the economy. That’s what I do,” Romney said.

Romney’s wife, Ann Romney, spoke briefly, prompting the crowd to tap their glasses and call for a toast.

They kissed briefly. “We’re not going to do an Al Gore moment,” she joked, referring to a long public kiss Al Gore once shared with his then-wife, Tipper.

It was a friendly end to a good day for the former Massachusetts governor. His chief rival, Perry, lost a key test vote in Florida, coming in second behind businessman Herman Cain. Romney, who didn’t compete in that contest, came in third — and less than a percentage point behind Perry.

Romney didn’t mention Perry in his speech here Saturday night. He did address illegal immigration, however, seeming to rebuke Perry’s assertion in Thursday’s debate that candidates who oppose in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants have “no heart.”

“Let the world understand that Republicans love legal immigration. It is a good thing and we like it,” Romney said. “And to protect legal immigration, we will make sure we stop illegal immigration.”

Perry, the Texas governor, addressed the GOP faithful here earlier in the day. He made a glancing reference to his chief rival during a 15-minute address at the Grand Hotel, where photos of former Gov. George Romney hang from the walls.

‘’There may be slicker candidates and there might be smoother debaters, but I know what I believe in,” he said in between attacks on President Obama’s health care law and boasts about his job-creating record in Texas.

His remarks, which offered him the chance to introduce himself to Michigan voters, also were an acknowledgement that his campaign is trying to shake off the perception that he’s struggling after a lackluster debate performance Thursday in Florida.

Perry met privately with donors after the event and then some state lawmakers before heading to a fundraiser in Shreveport, La. Romney plans to stay overnight on Mackinac Island.

“I don’t know whether they perceive Mitt Romney to be their hometown guy or not — I think they’re looking for a leader,” Perry told The Associated Press after speaking to the legislators.

Romney held a meeting with those lawmakers as Perry was set to speak at a lunch a few floors below at the hotel. One person arrived wearing a “Romney” button, from George Romney’s 1962 campaign for governor.

The docks where the ferries arrive were decorated with several “Romney for President” signs and the island was packed with volunteers handing out campaign literature.

“We’re not taking anything for granted,” said Rob Macomber, Romney’s state director for Michigan. “But obviously there’s a lot of good will toward the Romneys here.”

Perry’s debate performance had clearly heartened Romney’s associates.

“It’s going to happen this time,” Ann Romney told Republican National Committeeman Saul Anuzis on her way into the meeting with lawmakers. “Perry in the debate? Shocking,” she said.

Romney sought the GOP nomination in 2008, but Arizona Sen. John McCain came out on top. Michigan was the only state that Romney won before he dropped out.

In the debate, Perry’s rivals raised questions about his record on immigration, public health and Social Security.

While Romney and Perry played to the GOP faithful on this resort island in the Great Lakes, their rivals were scattered.

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman was in New Hampshire, where he’s staked his candidacy. U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota was busy fundraising as she struggles to remain a relevant force in the race. Businessman Herman Cain, U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania were in Florida, site of a straw poll.

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Associated Press writers Philip Elliott in Orlando, Fla., and Kathy Barks Hoffman in Mackinac Island, Mich., contributed to this report.

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