MACKINAC ISLAND, Mich. — 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 Rep. James “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 Mr. Romney spent summers on Mackinac as a child at the governor’s summer residence.
Mr. 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!”
It was a good day for the former Massachusetts governor. His chief rival, Mr. Perry, lost a key test vote in Florida, coming in second behind businessman Herman Cain. Mr. Romney, who didn’t compete in that contest, came in third - and less than a percentage point behind Mr. Perry.
Mr. Romney didn’t mention Mr. Perry in his speech here Saturday night. He did address illegal immigration, however, seeming to rebuke Mr. Perry’s assertion in Thursday’s debate that candidates who oppose discounted in-state college-tuition rates 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,” Mr. Romney said. “And to protect legal immigration, we will make sure we stop illegal immigration.”
Mr. 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.
Mr. Perry met privately with donors after the event and then some state lawmakers before heading to a fundraiser in Shreveport, La.
“I don’t know whether they perceive Mitt Romney to be their hometown guy or not. I think they’re looking for a leader,” Mr. Perry told the Associated Press after speaking to the legislators.
While Mr. Romney and Mr. Perry played to the GOP faithful on this resort island in the Great Lakes, their rivals were scattered.
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. was in New Hampshire, where he’s staked his candidacy. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota was busy fundraising as she struggles to remain a relevant force in the race. Former corporate CEO Herman Cain, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania were in Florida, site of a straw poll won by Mr. Cain.
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