(Clarifies attribution of quote in 12th paragraph)
By Jeremy Pelofsky
YPSILANTI, Mich., Jan 12 (Reuters) - Mitt Romney and John McCain clashed on Saturday over how to revive the depressed economy of Michigan, the former U.S. manufacturing powerhouse which hosts the next Republican presidential primary.
Michigan-born Romney, eager for a win here on Tuesday after losing Iowa to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and New Hampshire to Arizona Sen. McCain, went to a General Motors Corp. plant that just announced it was laying off 200 workers.
“It’s inexcusable to me to see these jobs going away again and again and again,” Romney said outside the plant, arguing for more investment in science and technology research.
Romney has criticized McCain for asserting that state jobs lost overseas are “not coming back,” calling it defeatist. McCain hit back sharply, saying he would be “ashamed and embarrassed” if he were to claim that old jobs were coming back.
“I’m proud to say I can bring jobs, new jobs, create new jobs,” McCain told reporters after a campaign event in Warren.
He said Michigan’s automobile industry, once the mainstay of the state, could be revived by a focus on alternative-fuel vehicles.
“I’m confident, as is the automotive industry ... we can reduce our dependence on foreign oil, we can lead the world again as we did for much of the last century, and I’m confident we can do it,” McCain said.
A win in Michigan for Romney, McCain or Huckabee would give them momentum in the wide-open Republican race ahead of the South Carolina primary a week later, the next in state-by-state contests to choose candidates for November’s election to determine President George W. Bush’s successor.
Leading Democratic candidates and several Republican hopefuls are not campaigning here.
The nation’s eighth-largest state with 10 million residents, Michigan has been bleeding jobs and experiencing a population exodus and could be pivotal in the November election as it could swing to either party’s nominee.
“It is an angry voter and they don’t know who to blame,” Michigan political pollster Ed Sarpolus said, describing his sense of the state which has the highest unemployment rate in the country — 7.4 percent — and soaring home foreclosures.
“What I’m critical of is the absence of a federal policy designed to strengthen the U.S. automotive sector and manufacturing general,” Romney said.
Huckabee has been running a television advertisement in Michigan arguing that voters want their “next president to remind them of the guy they work with, not the guy who laid them off,” a shot at Romney’s years as a venture capitalist.
Polls show a close race in Michigan between McCain and Romney, with Huckabee not far behind in third place. Romney argues winning the state is personal because he was born and raised here, and his father once served as governor.
“It’s personal because I love this state, it’s personal because I recognize that as Michigan goes, so goes the nation,” Romney said.
New polls are expected to be released later on Saturday.
Late last year, a poll showed roughly three-quarters of residents listed the economy as their top concern. University of Michigan economists predicted 51,000 more jobs will be wiped out in the state this year in addition to the 400,000 lost since 2000.
Larry Clanton, a 59-year-old Republican voter whose vehicle detailing business recently went under, blamed the downturn on business leaders who failed to diversify the economy beyond its now-struggling auto industry.
"Anything to boost the overall economy would be good," he said. "To some degree, what's good for the nation is good for Michigan. Right now, young people graduating from college cannot find employment and are leaving; we're experiencing a brain drain." (Editing by Stuart Grudgings; Additional reporting by Andy Sullivan, Andrew Stern and Karen Pierog) (For more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online at blogs.reuters.com/trail08/)