LIVONIA — Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney defended himself Thursday against questions over why he opposed a federal bailout of General Motors and Chrysler two years ago.
Romney told a voter at the Senate Coney Island restaurant in a Detroit suburb that the automakers should have gone through a private bankruptcy without the federal aid, which cost taxpayers billions.
"Some people believe in bailouts. I believe in the process of the law," the businessman and former Massachusetts governor said. "It would have worked better if we would have done what I said."
Although Romney won his first and only 2008 presidential primary in Michigan, he has run into a more skeptical reception during his first campaign swing through the state since kicking off his 2012 campaign a week ago. Romney spoke out forcefully after the 2008 election against a federal bailout of General Motors and Chrysler, an initiative that the Republican and Democratic parties both considered a matter of life or death for the companies.
On Thursday, dozens of autoworkers and Democrats protested outside the restaurant as Romney spoke inside, eager to remind voters of his position.
"For a guy whose father basically ran Michigan to not know the importance of the industry, and to come here and ask for money, I just don't understand," said Larry Ring, 52, a Ford electrician from Wayne County's Canton Township. Romney's father, George, led American Motors from 1954 to 1962 before he became governor in this heavily auto-dependent state.
Former Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm also criticized Mitt Romney.
"I think that people who want to donate (to Romney) should be looking at, when the auto industry was asking for a donation, what he was saying," she said in an interview Tuesday on MSNBC. "I think they should give him the same answer."
Romney got a warm reception from diners Thursday morning after ordering scrambled eggs, potatoes and toast at the counter and paying in cash. He signed a baseball and a copy of the Detroit Free Press with his photo on the front page for Lawrence Taylor, a 55-year-old retired state health care worker from Oakland County's Commerce Township. Taylor, a longtime autograph collector, also has the signature of Romney's father.
The auto industry bailout may be a tough issue here for any Republican in the presidential race since many GOP leaders have blasted it as an example of government fiscal irresponsibility.
Democrats, including President Barack Obama, have trumpeted the federal intervention as a triumph, stressing that the companies are now doing well after going through bankruptcy and then restructuring. Chrysler has repaid most of the $10.5 billion in taxpayer money that it received. GM has paid back just over half of its $50 billion in aid and is regaining market share. Together the companies have added about 50,000 jobs nationwide. The White House says the bailout ultimately will cost taxpayers $14 billion, far less than expected.
Industry officials and others argue that a federal rejection would have led to liquidation and the loss of more than a million jobs nationwide.
In his Michigan appearances, Romney is talking up his background as a business consultant and venture capitalist, saying it gives him the skills to help reverse the job loss that has given the state a 10.2 percent unemployment rate. The message echoes one used by former computer executive Rick Snyder in his successful 2010 campaign for Michigan governor.
Some Michigan Republicans say the party's voters still feel a kinship with Romney - who grew up in Detroit - and warm feelings toward his father.
"His family is steeped in the history of the auto industry. The tradition is part of his family," said Mike Bishop, a Rochester attorney and former Republican leader in the Michigan Senate. Bishop said he hasn't decided whom he will support for president.
His advisers have said Romney is counting heavily on winning Florida and Michigan, although neither state has yet set a date for their 2012 contests.
After campaigning in Livonia, Romney headed for a round-table discussion at a Detroit business development center Thursday morning. Romney had no trouble attracting supporters to fundraisers Tuesday and Wednesday in Grand Rapids and the well-heeled Detroit suburbs of Grosse Pointe and Birmingham.
In an op-ed piece published during the debate over the bailout in late 2008, Romney argued that the auto industry was on a "suicidal course of declining market shares, insurmountable labor and retiree burdens, technology atrophy, product inferiority and never-ending job losses."
Said Granholm, Romney "put his finger up in the air, saw which way the polls were headed, and he goes after his own home state."