ABOARD THE ROMNEY CAMPAIGN BUS, OHIO—From the start, the mood around Mitt Romney on the second leg of his barnstorm bus tour around Ohio was not desperate exactly, but pleading, insistent.
“Are you ready to welcome Mitt Romney to the state he is going to need to put him over the top?” said Pat Tiberi, a congressman from the Columbus area, to a packed high school gymnasium in the suburb of Westerville.
Outside were protesters in Santa Claus and reindeer costumes, adding to the already surreal feel of the day, which began with polls showing a double-digit lead for President Obama in the state, up even from damaging polls released the day before.
“We need to give Mitt Romney the encouragement today,” Tiberi continued. “We need to give him the encouragement that he feels from you, from us, that he can win Ohio! So let’s go, guys!”
Romney also received a full-throated endorsement from golf legend Jack Nicklaus, who declined to echo Romney’s mocking of Obama’s penchant for golf but did allow that “I certainly didn’t apologize for my success.” Less helpful was Mike Rowe, the host of the television show Dirty Jobs, who made clear that his appearance alongside the former Massachusetts governor at a rally and roundtable at a spring-wire plant should by no means be taken as a Romney endorsement.
He wasn’t alone in having mixed feelings for the governor.
“I am for whatever is going to be better for America,” said Angela Buck, who was attending the rally.
Asked whether that was Romney, she replied: “I don’t know. I am definitely against Obama. Is Romney my No. 1 choice? Probably not.”
Also spotted at the rally was that most elusive of birds, the undecided voter.
Mark Stevens, a band teacher at the school—classes, he said, were “organized chaos” that day—slipped into the bleachers for the event.
He didn’t know who he was going to vote for, and he wanted more answers, he said.
“How are you going to reduce the deficit?” he asked. “Are you going to raise taxes? The devil is in the details, and them being politicians, they don’t want to give them.”
A recent initiative to strip public employees of collective bargaining rights in Ohio was a “poison pill” for Republicans in the state, Stevens said, but the rising debt was a concern too, and it was why, he said, the school band’s recent trip to Austria was so expensive.
“When you are in debt, you are not free,” he said. “You take out money on a house loan, you are in debt. You pay that money back, you are home free.”
Even more committed supporters seemed to have trouble explaining what they liked about the governor.
“I am so tired of politicians,” said Mary Aggers, who attended the roundtable discussion at the American Spring Wire plant in Bedford Heights and who classified Romney as a non-politician despite his tenure as Massachusetts governor and previous runs for office. “He is not a politician. He’s not a slick talker. He may not be a good campaigner, but he can turn the country around.”
“All my liberal and Democratic friends say, ‘Well, I’d rather have a beer with President Obama,” said Richard Perk, who works for a company that makes jailhouse phones and who counts himself as a committed Romney supporter. “Well, you know what? So would I. But it’s not the senior class president we are voting for.”
Romney appeared to try to take some of the sharper edges off his stump speech Wednesday. Although the campaign had said the theme of his two-day bus tour with running mate Paul Ryan would be jobs and energy, he talked instead about the debt, one of the few issues on which voters give him better marks than Obama. The candidate talked about his bipartisan experience as governor.
“I knew I didn’t have all the ideas and all the best answers, and that I needed to work with other people and exchange ideas, and when you do that you can accomplish great things,” he said.
He told the school gym audience that they shouldn’t expect a huge tax cut because he was going to reduce deductions and exemptions. At the factory, he even heaped praise on European countries (because of their liberalized trade policies) and Canada (because of its lower corporate tax rate).
When one woman stood up at the town hall and tearfully recounted how she could only afford to buy materials for her small business, Romney said he could relate and described how he ran into the same problem when he tried to manufacture the Olympic torch.
At an evening rally in Toledo, he again sought to show his compassionate side.
“I have over my lifetime seen people in this country—and by the way, most of whom are struggling with one kind of challenge or another,” he said. “You look around, you see everybody, they look happy and you think everybody is doing just fine and you are the only one with problems. But the truth is most people that you see have some real challenges in their life of one kind or another. I understand that.”
At one point, Romney remarked that it had been a while since he had heard from the protesters who used to interrupt his rallies with cries of “Four More Years!”
As if on cue, a group started screaming from the balcony, but they were quickly drowned out by the thousands of people below chanting “U-S-A! U-S-A!”
“Oh, good,” Romney said. “It’s the ‘four more years’ people.”
Romney had tricks of his own, though. “If I am elected president,” he said at rallies around the state. “No, when I am elected president…”
And Ohioans did their best to get him to believe, whatever the polls.
“Godspeed with this governor,” said one factory owner. “Please win this race.”
Said another man at a town hall, “Welcome to Cuyahoga County,” adding that the county has more registered Republicans than any other in Ohio and would deliver the all-important state for Romney in November.
“I need it in a big way,” Romney replied. “Come on, you guys, I need you to come through.”
“I want to thank you, president-to-be!” screeched another woman so loudly that the PA system shrieked and the whole place went into a building-wide cringe. “And I believe you are going to win!”
“Thank you. That’s my mom,” Romney joked. “Thanks, Mom. Ha ha. This really is an election about a very distinct and stark choice between two different paths. I think the president loves America like I love America.”
And with that, the crowd began to boo.