In a narrow warehouse in exurban Washington, D.C., a vinyl poster hangs behind seven folding chairs—an advertisement for the small business hosting this campaign event for Mitt Romney. The poster displays the company’s name, Exhibit Edge, along with its slogan, “Intelligent Exhibiting,” and its mission statement, typed in large capital letters:
WE ARE A . . .
WOMEN OWNED &
It’s an intriguing backdrop for a Romney rally. And the poster is only one of many signs that the former Massachusetts governor, now the undisputed if unofficial Republican nominee for president, has “pivoted” to the general election.
Another is the location of the rally itself. Chantilly is in Northern Virginia, but far enough from Washington to be in the purplest part of what may be the purplest state in 2012. According to the RealClearPolitics poll average, Barack Obama currently leads Romney in Virginia by 3.2 points.
Sitting behind the space where Romney is to speak are more than 30 professionally clad women. Like Exhibit Edge CEO Bev Gray, all are small business owners. Shortly, the campaign’s commander in the war for women, Ann Romney, will tell the crowd of over 100, almost as an afterthought, “It’s a great country, and it’s exciting to see what women can do.”
Virginia governor and aspiring running mate Bob McDonnell isn’t here (he’s joining Romney in Portsmouth the next day), but local GOP congressman Frank Wolf, the moderate’s moderate, shuffles out to introduce Romney and his wife.
“I was telling the governor, a number of years ago, I traveled with his mom in a presidential election back in the sixties,” the 73-year-old Wolf recounts. “His mom was a very nice person, somebody who believed in the investment of math, science, physics, and chemistry, and biology that will bring about an economic renaissance in this country. A renaissance to make sure that the 21st century is an American century and not a Chinese century.” Wolf’s introduction doesn’t quite capture the ethos of the Tea Party, but this is the general election, after all.
Officially, the nomination will only become Romney’s in late August on a stage in Tampa. Yet as the Romneys walk into the warehouse, in matching blue suits, the husband looks the part of president more than ever. When Romney appeared up the road in Fairfax last October, his jacket was off, his white shirtsleeves were rolled up, and his hair was carefully engineered to look a little messy.
But that was the primary, and this is now. Romney keeps his jacket on, his white shirt immaculately pressed, his hair perfectly combed. Nothing is out of place—not the blue tie, or the American flag lapel pin, or the salt-and-pepper sideburns. As he speaks to the audience, he furrows his brow to punctuate the real-world consequences of the Obama-era economy.
“It means people who thought they’d be retiring . . . can’t retire and they still have to work,” Romney says, shaking his head slightly. “It means grandparents who don’t have enough money to buy gasoline to go see the grandkids anymore. It’s vacations no longer planned. Movies not attended. It’s meals that weren’t as fancy as perhaps they were a few years ago.”
He caps off the list with a ready-made applause line: “Americans are tired of being tired of this economy and this president, and they want real change.”
Near the end of his speech, Romney hits his rhetorical stride when criticizing Obama’s affinity for class warfare, though Romney doesn’t use the term. “He’s taken to attacking success. He’s taken to dividing the American people. He’s taken to finding these scapegoats for his own failures, finding some way to explain why it is that three and a half years into his presidency, this economy is still bumping along the bottom.”
The friendliness of the crowd allows Romney a chance to let loose with a few cracks. As he’s done before, he channels George Costanza from the sitcom Seinfeld. “People ask me, ‘What would you do to get the economy going?’ Well, I say, look at what the president’s done and do the opposite,” Romney says to big laughs. He also jabs both Obama and former president Jimmy Carter. Obama’s, Romney says, is “the most anti-small-business administration I’ve seen probably since Carter. And who would have guessed we’d look back at the Carter years as the good old days, you know?” More big laughs.
But Romney is careful not to let the mirth get out of hand. He pauses for a moment when introducing his wife. “My sweetheart of, let’s see, how many years?” The question elicits a few knowing groans and nervous laughter from the audience. “I know how many years we’ve been married!” Romney says, raising his voice just slightly. “We’ve been married 43 years, but we dated 4 years before that.”
For most of the brief, 30-minute rally, the crowd sits or stands dutifully as Romney goes through the stump speech. On taxes, Obama’s for raising them, Romney’s for lowering them. On regulations, Obama’s instituted more, Romney wants to roll them back. On education, Obama’s for less choice, Romney’s for more. But on energy, Romney employs another relatively well-delivered, droll joke:
The president the other day said he’s in favor of all of the above when it comes to energy. And I wondered how in the world he could say that given the fact that he put the moratorium on drilling in the gulf, we haven’t been drilling in the outer continental shelf, we’re not drilling in ANWR. The regulators have been trying to slow down the development of natural gas resources by trying to regulate fracking. And of course, the battle against coal that seems to be waged by this administration. So how could he say he’s for all of the above? And then I realized what he must have been thinking, and that is he’s for all the sources of energy that come from above the ground.
The applause is raucous, but Romney wants to make sure he’s not misunderstood. “I actually like the stuff from above the ground and the stuff from below the ground, and we’ll put Americans back to work as we take advantage of those resources,” he says, as the laughter subsides.
Michael Warren is a reporter at The Weekly Standard.