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Simone Landon

Editor, HuffPost Detroit

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Rick Santorum Knocks Bush On Bailout, Supports Private-Sector Unions In Detroit Speech

Posted: 02/16/12 03:33 PM ET  |  Updated: 02/16/12 03:59 PM ET

Rick Santorum laid out his economic plan Thursday before before hundreds of Detroit Economic Club members, on the ostensible turf of GOP rival and Michigan native Mitt Romney.

His speech centered on economic issues, somewhat of a departure for Santorum, who has built support by appealing to far-right sentiment on social issues and positioning himself as the more conservative alternative to Romney on everything from abortion rights to women in the military.

But in Detroit, he talked about the need to bolster America's manufacturing and create a level playing field among international competitors. He laid out a tax plan that would include a flat 17. 5 percent corporate tax and reduce the highest personal income tax rate to 28 percent -- "Ronald Reagan's top rate," as he said.

"What's good enough for Ronald Reagan is good enough for me," Santorum said, although in the 1990s he once characterized himself as no Reagan Republican.

Still, the former Pennsylvania senator made it clear that he did believe in the Horatio Alger model for all Americans and knocked President Barack Obama for "believing in equality of result" and not "equality of opportunity."

"There is income inequality in America," Santorum said. "There always has been and I hope there always will be."

His economic plan makes a bid for the "100 percent," he said. "We have a president that says he supports the Occupiers that divide Americans between 99 percent and 1 percent. And we have another candidate who suggests he doesn't care about the very poor, he cares about the 95 percent," he said in a reference to Romney. "How about a candidate that cares about the 100 percent? Who cares about everybody and wants to give them the opportunity to rise in society."

"We need to create an environment where all people can rise up and also create a culture consistent with the values of our country. It was a great country because we believed in creating a great and just society from the bottom up," he added.

Santorum opened by saying it was "exciting to see the resurgence of the auto industry here," but did not make a heavy play for the Detroit audience. Instead, he referenced his Pennsylvania coal miner roots and the opportunity to be found in the oil fields of North Dakota.

Later, after a question from the audience, Santorum did take a stance on the 2008 federal bailout of automakers GM and Chrysler and at the same time took a jab at Romney, his rival. "Romney supported the bailout of Wall Street and decided not to support the bailout of Detroit," Santorum said. "My feeling was the government should not be involved in bailouts period. It's a much more consistent position."

But rejecting the auto bailout is a tough position to take in Michigan, where local economists and even the state's Republican governor have pointed to its favorable affects. And on Thursday, GM announced record profits of $7.6 billion for 2011. But Santorum said the auto industry would have been just fine if the government had allowed the market to work.

"I think it would be be alive and equally well if not better," he said. "Markets would've had to react and do what was necessary."

Countering Romney and the Republican Party line, Santorum placed the blame for the auto bailout squarely on President George W. Bush. "I blame Bush more than I blame President Obama," he said. "Obama was jut following suit. Bush set the precedent, and it was the wrong precedent."

Romney has also come out swinging at the United Auto Workers union, but Santorum chose to take a different tack in Detroit. (Solidarity House, the union's headquarters, sits just three miles from the site of Santorum's speech.)

"My grandfather was coal miner and treasurer of his union," he said. "I have no problem with private-sector unions. They play a role in society."

But lest he sound too pro-labor before his business audience, Santorum noted his support for state-level right-to-work laws and his belief that public-sector unions should not be allowed to negotiate wages or benefits.

Romney will speak to a larger Detroit Economic Club audience at Ford Field next week. But the size of Thursday's relatively small ballroom crowd (about 350 individuals) belies Santorum's recent success. Three national polls released this week show Santorum with a lead of 2 to 3 percentage points over Romney. In Michigan, a Thursday poll from the Detroit News/WDIV of 500 likely Republican voters showed Santorum with 34 percent, compared to Romney's 30 percent.

After sliding in the polls, Romney has beefed up his Michigan campaign and attempted to bolster his native son image. He penned an op-ed in the Detroit News Tuesday declaring himself a "son of Detroit" and emphasizing his ties to Michigan. On Thursday -- ahead of Santorum's speech -- Romney received a timely endorsement from Michigan's governor, Rick Snyder.

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