Manchester, N.H.

Mitt Romney’s (sort of) triumphant return to New Hampshire was held at Manchester Central High School, a big old building in a down-on-its-heels section of town. The campaign put the rally in the gym, but for some reason curtained off three-quarters of the space. Only three small sections of risers and a little area of folding chairs were available. But maybe that was smart: Fifteen minutes before show time, several of the 250 or so seats were empty. Although they eventually filled, as it turned out, not everyone in the audience was there to support Romney.

In the most superficially inappropriate use of campaign music since Hillary Clinton entered to “American Girl” (go read the lyrics if you don’t believe me), the Romney people began the warm-up program with “Eye of the Tiger,” a song made famous in Rocky III. For the training montage in which a bloated, lazy former champion (Rocky) has to make a comeback after being surprised by a gritty, unheralded insurgent (Clubber Lang). Come to think of it, maybe the song fits after all.

Whatever the case, a short while later John Sununu introduced Romney with all of the verve you’d expect from the man who once championed Supreme Court justice David Souter. For some reason, Sununu spent most of his introduction painting Romney as a stalwart social conservative—“a true conservative” who fought for “the right to life” in Massachusetts and “fought for traditional marriage,” too. Sununu would be the first and last speaker in the program to discuss social issues.

A short while later the Top Gun theme announced the arrival of John McCain, who came to formally endorse Romney. On its face, a McCain endorsement might sound surprising, given how unpleasant their fight was in 2008. After all, Romney accused McCain of running a campaign “reminiscent of the Nixon era,” complained that McCain was using “dirty tricks,” and proclaimed McCain as the wrong “Republican for the future.” For his part, when McCain was asked to respond to one of Romney’s negative ads he replied, “I don’t know how to respond to a lot of his charges, because tomorrow he may have a different position.”

But, as proof that some candidates don’t believe the things they say during elections, Romney began cultivating McCain the moment he dropped out of the 2008 race. He was successful enough in the courting that McCain held a fundraiser for him in Arizona just a few months after losing to Obama. (There’s also an et tu Rick aspect to the endorsement.)

McCain got a standing ovation after being introduced by Romney. It was the most enthusiastic moment of the event. McCain gave a fine little endorsement. (Complete with an uncomfortable joke: “I can’t help but see Governor Sununu without that old joke coming to mind about the two inmates in the chow line in the state prison. And one of them turned to the other and said, ‘The food was a lot better in here when you were governor.’”)

And the crowd seemed to have real affection for McCain. But the entire affair was surprisingly low-energy. The Boston Globe’s Glen Johnson observed that he had “never seen such a lackluster performance or reception” to McCain. And to be sure, McCain sounded a little older, his voice thinner than it was four years ago. But these things are relative. By comparison to the reactions Romney got from the crowd, McCain was positively electric. Every time he tossed out a “my friends,” you could feel the nostalgia begin to flow.

All in all, it was a pretty fair event. Romney and McCain took turns answering questions together from the audience, and they gave a nice performance. McCain did the jokes and the foreign policy; Romney handled the economics and the defense of free markets. (Which was necessary because three of the first four questions came from Occupy Wall Street-types.) It wasn’t a tour de force. There wasn’t a cavalcade of applause. But it wasn’t a disaster, either.

And when you’re inevitable, that’s all that really counts. At least in theory.

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