WEST CHESTER, Ohio
About midway through Mitt Romney’s speech to a crowd of as many as 30,000 who had gathered for a chilly, outdoor, red-white-and-blue Friday night rally in this suburb of Cincinnati, close Romney aide Stuart Stevens wandered through the throng by himself, getting a feel for how the audience was reacting to Romney’s words. Stevens does that sometimes, listening to the thoughts of people who have no idea they’re talking to someone who has Romney’s ear and probably wrote the very phrases they’re hearing. On Friday, he stepped into the largest gathering that Romney has drawn in the entire campaign.
I ran into Stevens in one corner of the crowd, and we chatted a little. Romney, he said, was using his last campaign days “to remind people of the basic choice — it’s a status quo versus change election, always has been.” Then Stevens grew quiet as Romney reached a critical part of the speech.
“Now, throughout this campaign President Obama has tried to convince you that these last four years have been a success,” Romney said.
“There it is — that’s it,” Stevens whispered.
“He wants to take all the things he did in his first term — the stimulus, the borrowing, ‘Obamacare,’ all the rest — and then try them all over again,” Romney said.
The crowd booed.
“But our big dreams will not be satisfied with the small agenda that’s already failed us,” Romney continued. “And today — did you see what President Obama said today? He asked his supporters to vote for revenge — for revenge.”
The audience seemed genuinely stunned, taking in its collective breath.
“Instead, I ask the American people to vote for love of country,” Romney said, drawing the longest and loudest applause of the night.
Stevens seemed enormously satisfied with Romney’s performance. A few hours later, that portion of Romney’s speech would become a 30-second commercial for the closing days of the campaign. It began with Romney asking if the crowd had heard what Obama said, then cutting to the president, at a rally earlier in the day in Springfield, Ohio, saying, “Don’t boo, vote. Vote. Voting’s the best revenge.” Then it cut back to Romney asking people to vote for love of country, ending on a black slide with a simple question: “What is your reason for voting?”
Obama said “revenge” about 1:30 Friday afternoon. Team Romney saw it on the candidate’s bus after a rally in Wisconsin. Romney himself wanted it in that night’s speech, and it came out of his mouth at the West Chester rally about 8:30, with a campaign camera mounted on a big boom to catch it all. By Saturday morning it was one of the most striking ads of the campaign.
Obama’s “revenge” remark was valuable to Romney not because it could be turned into an attack ad. “Revenge” was valuable because it underscored, a thousand times, Romney’s new emphasis on the bigness of his own campaign versus the smallness of Obama’s. Romney’s closing argument is filled with words and phrases that convey a largeness of vision: destiny, renewal, purpose, better life, better days, better future, fresh start, new beginning, a bigger, better country. In the campaign’s final days, Romney is pushing hard on the idea that things really can improve with new leadership; in his West Chester speech, Romney used the word “better” a total of 15 times.
A critical part of the theme is that Romney is now asking people to join him in a larger cause. In the past, especially after sustaining serious damage from the “47 percent” video, Romney made clunky references to wanting to represent 100 percent of Americans. Now, as he finishes, Romney has settled on a more graceful way to make the “bigger, better country” argument fully inclusive. The key moment came at the end of the West Chester speech.
“We’ve journeyed far and wide in this great campaign for America’s future…” Romney said. “The door to a brighter future is there. It’s open. It’s waiting for us. I need your vote. I need your help. Walk with me. Walk together…”
The crowd erupted in cheers of ROMNEY! ROMNEY! ROMNEY! and then WE WANT MITT! WE WANT MITT! WE WANT MITT! It was a bigger, better moment.
In September, when the campaign was going through a rocky time in the wake of “47 percent” and other missteps, former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan wrote a much-discussed Wall Street Journal column entitled “Time for an Intervention” in which she blasted the Romney campaign’s strategy, and especially the attitude betrayed by “47 percent” video. “That’s too small and pinched and narrow,” Noonan wrote. “You have to have more respect than that, and more affection, you don’t write anyone off, you invite everyone in. Reagan in 1984 used to put out his hand: ‘Come too, come walk with me.’ Come join, come help, whatever is happening in your life.”
The Romney campaign and Noonan have had a difficult relationship, certainly so after the column. Many insiders were irritated by Noonan’s critique; some thought she was simply trying to draw attention to herself. Others quietly passed word to Noonan that they thought she was right. But the bottom line is that in West Chester, as well as in an earlier speech near Milwaukee, Romney invited everyone to walk with him to a bigger, better future. At the end of this long campaign, and with Romney’s opponent telling supporters that voting is the best revenge, Romney’s words sounded just right. And they got an enormously positive response. Romney had found just the note to end a long, long campaign.
Romney pulled out every stop, and a few more, West Chester. The list of speakers and guests was long: Marco Rubio, Rudy Giuliani, John Boehner, John McCain, John Kasich, Rob Portman, Kelly Ayotte, Artur Davis, Bobby Jindal, and many others. (Condoleezza Rice was scheduled to appear, but didn’t.) Kid Rock, Romney’s Bruce Springsteen, made a concert-length appearance beforehand. The idea was to make the event like a full-scale Republican National Convention, all in one night. “This is just like the RNC,” said one man in the crowd who got the idea without being told.
The campaign had obviously done a huge amount of preparing. The rally was held on a huge site in West Chester, an outer suburb of Cincinnati that will be key to Romney’s fortunes in Ohio. Enormous bleachers were constructed. Huge cranes soared into the sky; one of them displayed an enormous white flag with the Romney campaign logo on it — not a feature of previous rallies. There was a marching band to play before Kid Rock. Lots of hot dogs and ice cream. That big boom with the video camera making sure to capture beautiful pictures for last-minute commercials.
Still, one thing the Romney team has not mastered — and at this late date probably won’t — is how to pace one of these extravaganzas. After Kid Rock, the program went on and on and on. Speakers included Rosario Marin, who was Treasurer of the United States from 2001 to 2003. Nobody knew who she was, and Marin’s remarks consisted mostly of saying, “Viva Romney!” Other speakers included Pam Bondi, the attorney general of Florida, and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who were fine but left the more politically aware in the crowd wondering why they weren’t home working for Romney in their own hotly-contested swing states.
Meanwhile, as darkness fell — many people had arrived by 5:00 or 5:30 for a Romney speech that wouldn’t begin for three hours — the temperature fell, too. Forty degrees, 38 degrees, 36 degrees — the night chill began to wear on many in the crowd as the list of speakers dragged on. “Make it short!” one man snapped as House Speaker John Boehner took the stage. (The rally was held in Boehner’s home district.) “Wrap it up, I’m freezing!” said another just before vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan appeared. Portman told the crowd that “we’re freezin’ for a reason,” but it’s not clear that everyone agreed with him. Still, the people who stuck it out heard an extraordinary speech from Romney, perhaps the best of the campaign when it came to delineating the differences between himself and Barack Obama.
The backdrop to Friday night in West Chester remains a race that no one fully understands. In the last ten Ohio polls listed in the RealClearPolitics average, nine show Obama leading Romney, while one shows a tie. Ohio Republicans, at least the ones who come to Romney rallies, are quite knowledgeable about the polls. They can discuss weighting and party identification and models. But many don’t trust the same polls they study. Some blame the situation on media bias, but others simply think pollsters are predicating their findings too much on the Democratic blowout year of 2008. Things just won’t be that way this time around, they say.
But as the campaign’s last days arrive, it’s clear that everyone is suffering from poll overload. They’ve seen too many numbers and have come to rely instead on their own instincts about the race. “It’s a feeling,” said Teresa Frerking, a volunteer who came from Goshen, Kentucky to attend. “It’s not statistics. It’s a feeling.”
“There have been a lot of polls,” Gov. John Kasich told the crowd. “A lot of polls, a lot of people talking about what’s going to happen…but look around you. Look at this crowd, look at this enthusiasm.”
That’s the feeling Romney needs his supporters to have. If the polls are wrong, if there is an invisible wave of Romney support out there, then that wave is focused in this part of the state. If Romney can run up a big margin here, he could upend the conventional wisdom about Ohio.
But whatever happens, Romney is ending his run for the presidency on a high-minded and generous note. Yes, he is pointing out the smallness of Obama’s campaign. But more importantly, he is stressing a big and inclusive vision for a Romney presidency and asking all to join him. He sounds like a winner.
“There’s so much more than just this being our moment,” Romney told the crowd. “It’s America’s moment of renewal and purpose and optimism….We’re almost home. One final push will get us there. We’ve known many long days and short nights, and we are so very, very close.”