Amherst, NH -
The sun was scorching when I got out of my car at 11:15am this morning. Perfect for a late summer morning in this picturesque village, birthplace of Horace Greeley and home to a quaint grassy square, a number of old war hero statues and a cute little general store called Moulton's Market where about fifty of us gathered to meet and greet Mitt Romney who, ideal for this sunny day, was sporting a nice bright tan.
As I stood inside the store waiting for the Governor to arrive I did my best to listen in to what people were saying about the Republican field. Some of them seemed to like Giuliani, but were willing to give Romney a chance. Some of them were fully decked out in Mitt gear, complete with baseball gloves (Mitts, if you will) to show their support. Others were just a little bit crazy, as is the norm for any political gathering and especially on the GOP side. One woman complained to whomever would listen to her for more than ten seconds, "why will no one in the media say that Obama's middle name is Hussein when they talk so much about Romney being a Mormon?" Good question, lady. I wonder if she knows that Mitt's real name is Willard, priming him to become arguably the second most famous Willard of all time. At the table next to her was a man with Jesus' head tattooed on his forearm. Let me tell ya, it was a darn good rendition.
While I was listening, the staff began to scuffle around so I glanced out the window to see if Romney was coming. Within moments I overheard that he was still a few minutes away, but I also saw that there was a man dressed in a human-sized dolphin suit standing next to his friend, looking remarkably like Ben Affleck on steroids, who was holding up a sign imploring Mitt to vow not to support any local Democrats. Sensing confrontation, I ran outside to await Mitt's arrival.
Regrettably, by the time the former Governor's SUV pulled up his muscle men had successfully strong-armed the would-be hecklers into the park across the street. They still shouted through their bullhorn, but embarrassment and fear ruled the day. Alas, there was no drama. Instead, Romney shook a number of hands outside the store including that of an elderly gentleman. This man, a former employee of Mitt's father, brought a picture of George Romney with him to show and tell Mitt that his father was the best boss he ever had. It was yet another nice moment in the world of politics, when a regular Joe gets to show his sincere appreciation for something related to the candidate that had happened in the past. Usually the candidate does a great job pretending to care, but I admit I was a little surprised at Mitt's performance with the gentleman. All he could muster was a series of lines like "that's great," and "oh wonderful" and "thanks for coming." He passionlessly helped the man, who brought a folding chair to wait and walked with a cane, put his photo back in his tote bag and moved into the store.
In front of the crowd, microphone now in hand, Mitt gave less of a stump speech and more of a mission statement before taking questions. He thanked everyone for stopping by, remarked upon the importance of this Presidential election due to:
A) the out-of-hand spending levels in Washington these days
B) the rise of global Islamic jihad
C) the need to support our troops.
On that last note, he busted out what seemed like his latest catch phrase, encouraging America to give a "surge of support" for the families and soldiers who are enduring a "surge of sacrifice." He managed to drop the "surge of support" line two or three more times before he left.
The Iraq war requiring a "Surge of Support?" More like it requires recognition as the Scourge of America. But hey, at least its not the Scourge of Carpathia.
At this point the questions began, and the first one had to do with supporting our troops through better mental and physical health care once they are home. This is where Mitt seems to relish his role as a non-Washington outsider. He showed nominal support for Bush's latest gambit, but mostly he stressed his hope that it be successful This way, he can disavow it when it fails. He spoke of the importance of funding the troops, but gave no promises or plans to actually get it done. Next thing you know he was changing the subject to a newspaper article about Iraq success, smiling and moving on to the next question, which was about global warming and fuel efficiency standards.
Much to my pleasant surprise, Romney talked about the failure of our policies to effectively increase gas mileage over the past twenty years, citing loopholes with trucks and SUVs, and claimed that he wanted a public-private investment into efficiency and renewables that would bring about a 50mpg fleet in the future. Of course, he didn't mention mandates or plans or time frames, but at least he spoke of it. But then the next thing you know he was talking about the ability of $3 gas prices to press America into action, and then blamed the increase on "Chavez, Ahmadinejad, Putin and others." Is that the same Chavez who gave free oil to your former state, Mr. Governor? Now, I know Chavez has bleeped up plenty, but are you into solutions are just passing the buck?
He also played the partisan blame game a bit. After he made a point against a national health care program where he stressed that he wouldn't want the people responsible for cleaning up Hurricane Katrina in charge of our national health care someone from the audience made the point that it was the Bush Administration who was in charge. Romney acknowledged the point, then backpedaled a bit before stating that he had been in Mississippi with Gov. Haley Barbour, and that the cleanup was going well. On the contrary, things weren't going so well in New Orleans. He incredulously wasn't sure why that was, and suggested that the fault might lie in the hands of the Mayor, the Governor, or possibly FEMA. I should mention that Ray Nagin and Kathleen Babineaux Blanco are both Democrats.
What really struck me throughout the entire show was that Mitt Romney never actually said anything. He talked fast, but he never actually said anything. He evoked a few principles, notably "taxes are bad," "spending is too high," "Democrats are doing a poor job," "I can solve problems," and "illegal immigration is bad," but there were no plans whatsoever. There weren't even any campaign promises, just a lot of misdirection. As soon as it became clear that a solid answer was needed to actually answer the question, he would smile and bring up a topic that was partly related and in his interest and move on. Then he would smile some more. The old Mitt and Switch. He did a masterful job of this to close the show, turning his second-to-last answer into an advertisement for the deli full of chicken and burritos behind him, saying that he had to give this fine business a chance to sell their delicious food. His last question was about the future of Social Security and Medicare. He acknowledged it, didn't answer it, smiled, and passed the microphone off to his staff. A few smiles, handshakes and autographs later, it was goodbye Romney.
Before he left I approached Mitt to shake his hand and I noticed that his tie, which appeared to be a nice plain light blue from afar, actually had the design of a bunch of little surfers cutting diagonally back and forth on the ocean. It was pretty cool, actually, but it struck me as a metaphor for his campaign approach. Judging by his pipeline-hollow answers, Romney seems to be riding a slippery wave toward the nomination. The New Hampshire primary season holds the potential for a long and gnarly break, but if the motion in the ocean ever picks up with some nasty crosscurrents and riptides, Mitt could be in for a nasty spill if he isn't constantly focusing on his balance. The bad news for the campaign is that Hampton Beach is hardly a hotspot for surfers. The good news is that if there is one candidate who is constantly focusing on his balance, his name is Mitt Romney. No matter what, after that surf, would someone please pass him the nearest hair dryer.