Milford, Michigan

Mitt Romney, in jeans and a blue and white oxford, stood just to the right of the stage at Baker’s of Milford Banquet Hall, nodding his head slightly as an enthusiastic soloist with a wireless microphone belted out the first verse of Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” The former Massachusetts governor smiled and joined most of the crowd for the chorus. “I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free.”

Wes Nakagiri, a leader of a Tea Party group called RetakeOurGov, wore a suit to introduce Romney and offered a short speech that ended with a thundering call to action. “We believe that America’s best days are ahead of us if we can just put Barack Obama behind us!” The crowd rose to its feet and offered sustained applause as Romney took the stage.

“Wes, thank you for that introduction,” Romney said, in front of a flag 20-feet high. “I agree with everything you had to say there, as I’m sure everyone else in this room did. I particularly liked the part where everybody got to their feet when we talked about replacing Barack Obama!”

Romney came to Milford to address a meeting of eight Tea Party groups​—​some 500 activists​—​from south-central Michigan just five days before the February 28 primary. His challenge on this cold night is the central challenge of his campaign: Can he win over the same conservative voters and Tea Party activists who helped produce a historic victory in the 2010 midterm elections?

Reports of the death of the Tea Party are greatly exaggerated. Despite a steady stream of stories in the establishment press claiming the end of Tea Party influence, voters energized by the movement have proven crucial in a primary season that was supposed to have been a victory march for the candidate with the most money and best organization​—​Romney. But he has had difficulty connecting with them.

In the first four GOP contests, exit polls showed that voters identifying themselves as “very conservative” or “strong Tea Party supporters” had chosen other candidates in large numbers. In Iowa, Romney won just 14 percent of “very conservative” voters and an equal number of “strong Tea Party supporters.” In New Hampshire, those numbers increased to 33 percent and 36 percent respectively. In South Carolina, however, just 21 percent of “strong Tea party supporters” backed Romney and 19 percent of “very conservative” voters. In Florida, those numbers increased to 30 percent and 33 percent. A recent Rasmussen national poll found that just 17 percent of voters who called themselves “very conservative” support Romney.

In Milford, Romney opened his remarks by touting his personal connections with the state. He told a story about his father, governor here in the 1960s, mistaking Mount Clemens for Mount Pleasant. Romney recalled that he was raised in a “lovely home”​—​since bulldozed​—​in Palmer Park, a comment that drew a few knowing nods. He reported that he had gone to kindergarten in Detroit​—​“I think it was called Hampton School”​—​where there were 30 or 40 kids in his class.

But the speech focused on economic issues. He spoke without notes and criticized Obama for failing to provide solutions to unemployment, a growing federal deficit, and the crushing debt burden caused by entitlement programs. He reviewed the tax plan his campaign rolled out earlier in the week and promised spending restraint. “I’ve got a whole list of programs we’re going to eliminate,” he said, without providing details. He promised that every program in the federal government during a Romney presidency would have to pass a threshold test: Is it worth borrowing from the Chinese in order to keep it?

It was standard Romney stump-speech fare and he ended, as he often does, with a paean to America. “After hearing that rendition of the national anthem​—​and my favorite rendition is the one I just heard. And what I mean by that is, I love it when I hear the people in the room sing along with the soloist and the musicians. It was very touching, very moving. And I appreciate your patriotism, your love of this country. We’re a very patriotic people.”

Hearing “The Star-Spangled Banner” sung with such passion, he said, made him want to share a story from his days running the Olympics. Romney’s told it many times before, but he set it up as something of a patriotism bonus.

At the closing ceremony, in the company of Vice President Dick Cheney, Romney asked Derek Parra, a speedskater who won gold and silver medals at the winter games in Salt Lake City, about his greatest memory from the Olympics. Rather than citing his medals, the young athlete recalled the opening ceremony, when he was asked to carry the flag that had flown over the World Trade Center on 9/11. Parra had expected the crowd to cheer loudly when the flag and its provenance were announced, but instead it fell silent. “Complete reverence,” Romney explained to a hushed crowd. It’s a terrific story, and Romney told it well.

“We are a patriotic people,” he insisted. “We love America!” Romney contrasted his desire to “restore” the America of the Founders with President Obama’s eagerness to transform America. He twice declared, “I believe in America,” and added, for good measure: “I love America.”

The crowd had been moved by the story of Derek Parra. But Romney’s patriotism pile-on was a bit like one too many packets of Sweet’N Low in your coffee. It made a moving story about the patriotism of an athlete feel like a story told to advance a political campaign. Several reporters who travel with Romney agreed that the patriotism section of his speech was longer and delivered with more passion for these Tea Party patriots than for other Republican groups. The irony: No one who knows Romney well doubts that he is moved by those stories every time he tells them.

If Romney sought to identify with these conservatives by speaking to their values, he did not pander on policy. He stayed after his speech and took several questions. His host promised they “wouldn’t be too bad,” and they weren’t. The most aggressive was this one: “There’s no greater immediate threat facing our country than the rapidly increasing federal debt. We now have an antiquated tax code that needs to be scrapped. Just tinkering around the edges of this monster will not save our country. How will you rewrite the tax code to a flatter, fairer tax that encourages production and keeps capital in this country?” Romney proceeded to politely describe his tax plan​—​which most certainly does not scrap the tax code and, while far preferable to anything coming from the White House, might accurately be described as tinkering.

That, at least, was the impression of Linda Williams, who owns the Heavenly Acres pet cemetery and crematorium. “It was weak,” she said. “He’s got to stop talking like a politician. He’s got to be stronger.” She left a supporter of Rick Santorum.

So did Phil Stargell, a local activist and radio host. “Tea Party people​—​there are a lot of entrepreneurs and small business owners,” he said, looking out from under the brim of a baseball cap that read “Jesus Inside,” in a logo resembling that of computers with “Intel Inside.” “You have to try to work with them and get them to the point where they can bring this country back because they’re the ones that’s going to bring this country back. That’s what I like about the Fair Tax and even Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 plan. You have to get rid of the income tax.”

And that could be part of the problem: Policies that many in the Tea Party regard as too cautious, the Romney campaign sees as bold. Last week, the campaign used that word​—​“bold”​—​to describe its tax plan in at least 22 separate press releases to reporters.

But others in the crowd were more positive. “He did better than I expected,” said Carolyn Kirin, a local GOP precinct leader but not a member of any Tea Party groups. She left a Romney voter.

Maribeth Schmidt is a leader of the “Rattle with Us” Tea Party. Motto: “Our Venom Is Our Vote.” A week earlier, she spent time with Romney as the only undecided voter on a panel of Michigan Republicans. Her group will not endorse, but she said she had heard enough from Romney to make her a supporter. “He didn’t evade anything. We have to have somebody who is going to fight. I saw more of that tonight.”

Electing conservatives to Congress, Schmidt says, will help. “I don’t think he’d turn down a flat tax if the legislature brought one to his desk. If we surround him with conservatives, he could be a very good president. I don’t feel at all uncomfortable with the thought of him as our president.”

Is that something less than an enthusiastic endorsement? No, she says: “I’m an enthusiastic supporter of Mitt Romney.”

Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.

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