TROY, Mich. (AP) -- Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney took his campaign to a Polish-American hall in a Detroit suburb Thursday, reminiscing with a largely elderly crowd about his late father and the long-vanished car companies George Romney ran during the heyday of the Big Three automakers.
The event took place a day after Romney performed well at a GOP presidential debate in nearby Rochester Hills, avoiding the gaffes of Texas Gov. Rick Perry and declining to comment negatively on allegations of sexual harassment plaguing businessman Herman Cain. Cain also stayed in Michigan to campaign Thursday, planning a sweep through Ypsilanti, Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids and Traverse City.
During the hourlong event, Romney stood in front of a "Michigan for Mitt" sign, surrounded by an audience that included at least a dozen relatives. Wearing khakis and a blue plaid shirt, he talked about visiting the affluent Detroit suburb of Grosse Pointe earlier Thursday and how saddened he was by the empty buildings he saw while driving through the Motor City.
"It just tears at my heart, because I know what this city can be and was, because I saw it then," said Romney, who grew up in a far more populated and prosperous Detroit. "Someone said a long time ago, `As General Motors goes, so goes the nation.' Boy, I sure hope that's not the case, all right, because General Motors went bankrupt and I don't want to see the nation follow down the path that Detroit's gone down."
The comments clashed somewhat with the warm sense of homecoming he expressed during his speech. His wife, Ann, spoke fondly of her own childhood in Michigan and noted her father had been the mayor of nearby Bloomfield Hills.
But the GM comments were in line with Romney's opposition to a 2009 federal bailout for that automaker and Chrysler Group LLC that many have credited with saving the Michigan-based companies. Romney said during Wednesday's debate that the companies should have gone through a private bankruptcy process, even though the automakers contend they likely would have had to liquidate before getting through bankruptcy without the federal funds.
GM and Chrysler are again making money and adding thousands of jobs in Michigan, which continues to struggle with an 11.1 percent unemployment rate, the nation's third highest. Romney risks angering voters in the state by his opposition to the bailout, although some Republicans here say they agree a private bailout would have worked better.
Romney touched on his family's long ties to the auto industry as he talked about the work his father did at Nash-Kelvinator Corp., which ended up merging with other carmakers to create American Motors Corp. George Romney ran AMC before becoming Michigan's governor in 1963 and making an unsuccessful presidential run.
"The wheelchair crowd here -- you remember Nash-Kelvinator," said Romney just after asking supporters to raise their hands if they remembered his father. He cited some of George Romney's advice in explaining why he was running for president, saying the country has become complacent and needs to head down a different path than the one being taken by President Barack Obama.
"The things he did, almost without exception, made it harder for this country to turn around," Romney said of Obama. "I know what this country is headed toward if we take the policies that we've seen in the last three years and continue them time and time again."
John Cunningham, an independent magazine sales representative from Auburn Hills, considers himself an independent and voted for Obama in 2008. But he said after listening to Romney's speech that he plans to vote for him in Michigan's Feb. 28 GOP presidential primary and in the general election.
"I think the Republican Party should have nominated him last time, and had they done that, I think he could have won," said Cunningham, 54. "He's going to pick off independents. He's going to pull off conservative Democrats. ... I get a good vibe from this guy."