It happened Friday in Detroit, as the presidential candidate was trying to emphasize his connections to Michigan – and to American-made cars – ahead of a highly important primary vote in that state on Tuesday.
The Republican candidate mentioned the multiple cars that he and his wife drive as part of a larger nod to the state where he grew up.
“This feels good, being back in Michigan," Romney said. "You know, the trees are the right height. The streets are just right. I like the fact that most of the cars I see are Detroit-made automobiles. I drive a Mustang and a Chevy pickup truck. Ann drives a couple of Cadillacs, actually. And I used to have a Dodge truck, so I used to have all three [Detroit carmakers] covered.”
But the comment also could rub many Americans the wrong way, a reminder that as someone with huge wealth, Romney may be out of touch with the realities and needs of ordinary Americans. At the very least, it provides fodder for critics to try to use his statement to make that impression.
Already, a new poll from the Pew Research Center finds that only 29 percent of registered voters see Romney as someone who "understands the needs of people like you." That's down from 37 percent last November, and it's part of a broader trend of fading public approval for Romney amid hard-fought primaries that have featured negative ads coming at Romney and from him toward other candidates.
The comment joins a series of perceived gaffes by the former Massachusetts governor, including some that have cast his wealth in a negative light. During one televised debate, for example, he offered a $10,000 bet to Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a former rival for the nomination.
The automotive comment also fell on a day when Romney was making what was billed as a major economic policy speech, to the Detroit Economic Club. The crowd was largely supportive, as he spelled out plans for tax cuts, reining in federal spending, and reviving a spirit of opportunity and entrepreneurialism.
It's not that Romney always creates problems when he goes off script. During the speech itself, he departed from his prepared remarks at other times without any glitch.
But the remark about Cadillacs, luxury cars made by GM, almost immediately drew media attention away from the body of his speech.
A Romney campaign aide explained after the speech that Mrs. Romney uses two Cadillacs, one registered in Massachusetts and one in California, according to Boston Globe report. The two cars are SRX Cadillacs, one a 2007 model and one a 2010, the Globe reported.
Vehicles can emerge during political campaigns as potent personal symbols. In the run-up to Tuesday's Michigan primary, the car industry is also important as a symbol of the state's economy and of controversial economic-policy choices.
Romney isn't unusual among Republicans in voicing disapproval of the auto industry bailout that was begun under President Bush and expanded by President Obama. But opponents are using the issue against Romney.
Romney, in his speech, said "Michigan needs a strong auto industry," saying that this goal would be aided by getting "government out of General Motors."
The Michigan primary offers Romney an important opportunity to try to regain momentum in the state where he grew up, and where his father served as a popular governor.