Romney pitches to a revved-up Fla. rally on primary eve

Romney 2012
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, accompanied by aide Garrett Jackson, left, and others, waves as he campaigns at Pioneer Park in Dunedin, Fla., Monday, Jan. 30, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

DUNEDIN, Fla. - The loop of rev-up-the-crowd country western music had already taken a second turn, repeating Toby Keith's hit "Made in America," when Mitt Romney's blue-and-white campaign bus pulled up to the town green Monday in this postcard-picturesque Tampa suburb.

"This is the epicenter of the political universe," Adam Putnam, the state's commissioner of agriculture, told the crowd as Romney and his entourage wended their way toward the stage.

Hundreds of patient, forgiving supporters who had waited more than an hour for the candidate's midafternoon arrival whooped and cheered when he appeared.

"What a turnout!" Romney said when the applause finally died down, then he aw-shucksed: "Oh my gosh. You guys are amazing! With a turnout like this," he said, "I'm beginning to think we might win."

The campaign rally was one of Romney's final ones before Tuesday's critical Florida primary. His main rival, Newt Gingrich, was similarly traveling around the state Monday pressing his own case with voters, while former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Texas Rep. Ron Paul, both far behind in polls here, had already moved on.

Romney, looking tanned and relaxed, with the collar of his blue-and-white-checked shirt unbuttoned, dedicated only a few minutes to Gingrich. Using a line that has become familiar since Thursday's debate in Jacksonville, Romney said Gingrich had blamed his poor performance first on an audience that had been told to remain silent and later on an audience that was making too much noise. He also criticized the former House speaker for having "made $16 million from Freddie Mac, the very institution that destroyed the housing market."

From their spot in the hot sun on the edge of the green, Mike Freese and Michael Fernandez listened with equal intensity, but very mixed feelings. Freese, 63, a retired special agent for the Florida Department of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco, and Fernandez, 18, a member of Occupy Tampa, had met only minutes before the rally. Both wore T-shirts and jeans. But Freese, a Vietnam veteran, who described himself as an "arch-conservative," wore one emblazoned with an American flag. Fernandez, a high school senior from West Tampa, former Eagle Scout and advocate for the 99 percent, wore one with a Haight-Ashbury logo.

After debating communal decision-making, self-reliance, and lack of difference between the two main political parties, they shook hands, wished one another well, and turned their attention to Romney.

Throughout the speech, Fernandez remained quiet. But Freese, pumped, could not contain himself.

When Romney criticized Gingrich over his Freddie Mac consulting, Freese helped finish the sentence.

"The very institution," said Romney, and Freese muttered, "that destroyed the housing market in Florida."

Clearly buoyed by polls showing him with a double-digit lead here over Gingrich, Romney aimed most of his arrows at President Obama, attacking him for his policies on health care, energy, foreign affairs, and the defense budget.

When he said Obama had failed the country, Freese responded, loudly, "Send him back to Kenya!"

When Romney said, "I'm troubled that he'd cut military spending," Freese said, "Big time boo!"

And when Romney expressed concern about the number of rotations that U.S. soldiers are forced to serve overseas, Freese muttered, "That's because there's no draft."

While the great majority in the crowd were enthusiastically behind Romney, dozens of hecklers were peppered throughout. Romney's promise to allow more use of coal and to issue licenses to drill more oil incited one man to yell, "We need another oil spill in the Gulf all right!"

He was quickly shouted down by his neighbors, "SHADDUP!"

These tense moments, however, washed away in the overall good will and the chants, "Let's go, Mitt!"

Lynn Martin, 69, said she was pinning her hopes for the nation on Romney. A retired advertising copywriter, Martin said her parents escaped from Latvia when she was a baby, fleeing the Nazis and Communists. She wept at the current state of affairs, saying, "We're no longer a country of freedom. Obamacare is forcing us to buy something we don't want. The government is taking over the auto industry. Using our hard-earned dollar to determine who wins in the marketplace."

Other voters, however, said that, with only hours to go before the polls opened, they were still undecided.

"I will probably be voting for him," said Abby Holt. Holt, 53, who works in financial services, said she had two reservations about Romney: She hoped he was actually more moderate than he sounded on the campaign trail, and she worried that as a complete Washington outsider, he might not be deft in getting legislation passed.

"I just hope he picks a running mate to help him get legislation through that will benefit our families," she said.

Romney ended his speech by echoing Ronald Reagan's vision of a shining city on the hill.

Freese wandered off down Main Street and stopped to commiserate with a couple of guys outside a local bar about their opposition to Obama.

Fernandez hung around for a while talking politics with strangers before heading back to the Occupy Tampa camp. "The Romney people," he said, "really know how to put on a show."

 


Contact staff writer Melissa Dribben at 215-854-2590 or mdribben@phillynews.com.